Leave Me Out of Your Loop: An Interview with Homeboy Sandman
A fixture in the indie hip-hop scene, Homeboy Sandman pivots from sociological commentary to personal rumination on new album Kindness for Weakness.
Known for his spry, syllable-flinging flow, Homeboy Sandman's words are often tinged with a current of anger, like he's rhyming against a world pitted against him. Since 2007's Nourishment EP, he's often weaponized his verses into high-powered flamethrowers of phonemes and polysyllabic phrasings, deftly striking out at a variety of sociopolitical institutions, perceived conspiracies, and personal wrongdoings that have left him fuming and ready to pounce. Frequently, you can hear the ire rolling off his tongue. While this flared-up frustration isn't inseparable from his sound, it seems to be an undercurrent swimming beneath his discography -- something that's under his skin, even if he keeps his blood from boiling to the surface.
In 2012's "Illuminati", for instance, he targets an American government that has rendered injustice a commonplace. "Every man is not created equal / We're all created mad different / Some are bad people / The bald eagle's mad evil", Sandman begins, the elongated vowels and two-syllable beats of "equal", "eagle", and "evil" all swirling together to spotlight the corruption cobwebbing the American ideal, and as he raps, you can hear the aggression hunkered down in his words, the torrent of chemically-amplified vitriol reconfigured to be a studied critique. He's mad at the system, but he keeps his cool to subvert it from within. Listen to "America, the Beautiful" from 2014's Hallways, and you can hear something similar: a lacerating, two-and-a-half-minute slice of hip-hop punditry, speckled with fury but defined by a levelheaded sense of style.
Yet this all changes in Kindness for Weakness, the Queens-based rapper's latest LP. Here, he's not as interested in dissecting how the "mad difference" of a marginalized demographic group is exploited and abused. It's his own "mad difference" he's attuned to, and he spends much of the record reflecting on his own individuality, how the "magic of maturation" has changed him and how he's learned to accept his own idiosyncrasies and impulses.
"I would say that lyrically, thematically, there's a focus on me as an individual as opposed to my interaction with society," Sandman told PopMatters, his speaking voice hued with the same understated intelligence present in his flow. "I can always find something to get upset about if I'm looking outside myself. Now I'm trying to focus on myself a little more. I'm trying to break away from the group dynamic and group identification I've had before and everything that comes with that."
This is a sentiment legible in one of the new LP's standout tracks "Eyes", a glossy, chill-hop monologue suspended over cascading chimes and a quivering, space-funk bass. "You can leave me out of your loop / Black, brown, poor, not trying to be part of your group", Homeboy raps, and you can detect in his words that he's not trying to disown his racial identity or abandon his socioeconomic background, but rather just trying to carve out the space -- and time -- to figure himself out. The loop he's in is himself and, as he discovers on Kindness for Weakness, that loop turns out to be an endless spiral that's just as enveloping as any sense of communal feeling that he's been wrapped up in before.
But why this sudden shift from condemnation to introspection? From anger to self-assessment? "I feel like on this album there's the least amount of sociological critique out of any of my albums," Sandman notes. "As a person, I'm a bit over it, not because I don't feel like people's lives are important or that I don't feel like these issues are important, but because I came to a point as a journalist -- as someone who was trying to rally support or move people toward certain actions -- where I wasn't really seeing a lot of success." Here, Homeboy is referring to his brief stint as a contributing writer for the Huffington Post from 2012-2013. During this period, he wrote a litany of stories, ranging from a critique of mainstream hip-hop ideology to a socio-linguistic analysis of the word "thug," but the experience left him with a sense of powerlessness. "I felt like what I was doing wasn't really translating into actual change," he said. "It was just turning into conversation. At its best, it was just conversation."
In "Talking (Bleep)", the lead single from the album, Homeboy recounts an incident where the Post declined an article he wrote delineating the "link between mass media and the prison industrial complex" and, instead, asked him to comment on some fatuous celebrity rap feud. "Didn't I just send you an entire article about the link between mass media and private prisons / That I thought was really important but you was like 'No, it isn't'", he raps, and then ushers in a halting, high-pitched instrumental that, according to Sandman, encapsulates the sound of someone trying to talk to you when you just don't want to hear anything they're saying. Playful, proudly off-kilter, and even outright comical at times, "Talking (Bleep)" contains some of the most incensed moments on Kindness for Weakness, which should tell you something about the album as a whole.
"In my day to day life, I'm tired of being angry," Homeboy summed up for us. "I definitely feel like there's a place for beautiful art created out of anger. I've done a lot of that. Maybe I've come to a point in my career where, out of patience, I want to make art. Out of happiness, I want to make art. Out of gratitude, I want to make art." If Kindness for Weakness is any indication of what Homeboy has up his sleeve, than whatever emotion he decides to take inspiration from, we'll be listening.