20 February 2012

JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER: Homeboy Sandman: Subject: Matter [EP]

JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER makes a preliminary judgment on a work of art based solely on the merits of its cover. A second review of the content will then challenge the idiom "never judge a book by its cover." Almost Colossus Mythbusters.
Homeboy Sandman, Subject: Matter [EP]; Stones Throw, 2012
Critiquing hip-hop on the merits of album art could be a challenge. So much of what defines hip-hop is in the lyrics, its content and flow. But the cover of Subject: Matter says a lot about the artist and content. Its the maximalist counterpoint to the minimalist matter-of-fact-ness of the Black Keys' Brothers by way of Mackie Osborne's backwards-forward packaging that's become synonymous with the Melvins' Ipecac catalogue.

There's a distinct vintage Nineties Hip-Hop vibe here, too -- before hip-hop got too flashy. Homeboy Sandman is decidedly under-dressed (are those sweatpants?), looking like he walked right out of a Naughty By Nature video, although the wordiness of the "liner notes" (the actual content of which I'm choosing to ignore for now) indicate Sandman wants more than other people's, er... property. He wants their minds, their attention. Homeboy is deep; he makes you think. He's not looking down on you and you're not looking up at him. You're looking into him.

Musically, the art suggests simple beats -- an 808, sparse samples -- while the Stones Throw label dictates with almost certainty obscure jazz and R&B breaks. Independent, underground; adverbs aside: non-mainstream, backpacker rap.

Opener "The Miracle" delivers on the heavy verbal delivery, drawing comparisons to fellow wordsmith Kool Keith. Homeboy (born Angel Del Villar II) delivers a complex rhythm pattern, rarely stopping to catch his breath. The comparison doesn't end at the vocals, either; rthentic RTNC's production arsenal seems to borrow from the same creep-tastic source material Dan the Automator utilized under Keith's Dr. Octagon persona. The vintage sampling that's almost become a staple of Stones Throw is prevalent throughout S: M, especially on the gratuitous romantic interlude of "Unforgettable" where early Madlib era heavy breaks and piano keys lay the beat while Sandman compares new sexual encounters to those of an unnamed lost love.

"Canned Goods" delivers on the expanded consciousness of the backpacker label, commenting on natural and economic disasters with a bleak tale of the trivial charity of humanitarian aid that would draw a sympathetic ear from Ayn Rand. "After the earthquake in Haiti," Villar raps, "People gave a damn for like almost a month, maybe / Not saying their emotion was fugazi / But pretty much we out of touch, mainly." Later, on closer "Soap," the MC delivers a sort of Taxi Driver lament over ominous warped organ moans and the sounds of steam and bubbling water.  "Soap is so special / Soap makes you clean," goes the course as Homeboy drops wisdom about the cleansing agent washing over personal and social stains. Message!

Subject: Matter's highlight is "Mine All Mine," with its old school bravado. Harder in tone, beat, and vocal delivery, Villar describes his origins as organic, literally -- "My roots underground, like veggies / My sound crack crowns from the soundbite / sound tight, edgy" -- and delivers on the everyman manifesto as described on the EP's cover, "my insurance is WebMD."

Although Homeboy Sandman's fourth album delivers exactly as expected from the promises of its cover (literally, as they're written out), Villar does shock and awe in lyrical content and clever wordplay.

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