Saturday, November 9, 2019

album review: 'dusty' by homeboy sandman

Not going to lie, this was the album that inspired me to do a full week of underground hip-hop reviews.

And when I say that, it's more of a combination of things than this album directly, even though Homeboy Sandman has been on my radar for a while now and I actually covered him briefly on the Trailing Edge last year. And I've long regretted that being my public introduction to discussing Homeboy Sandman, because I'm not sure it reflected how much I genuinely loved his work when I did my deep dive in his back catalog. To me I put him in a similar category to Sage Francis and Brother Ali, an older guy who is just as much of a bruising, socially conscious MC with uniquely creative wordplay, but also a fan of kookier flows and melodies, and with a much more robust sense of humour. Like most artists in this fringe of the underground, he can be a bit of an acquired taste, but if you're fond of acts like Aesop Rock - with whom he's worked frequently - you'd probably like a lot of his work, particularly albums Actual Factual Pterodactyl from 2008, First Of A Living Breed from 2012, and Kindness For Weakness from 2016.

That said, when he put the EP Humble Pi last year with producer Edan... I still wasn't really crazy about it, and I still place a lot of my frustrations on the production. Don't get me wrong, I like my lo-fi boom-bap, but Homeboy Sandman has the sort of compositional acumen that allows him to build more developed songs, and the dustier production didn't always flatter his melodic sensibility as strongly. And that is why I was a little nervous about his newest project literally called Dusty, produced entirely by Mono En Stereo who in recent years has done a lot of work for Your Old Droog, another act that I should probably get to covering at length at some point. But hey, it was short, and I had already heard songs that were as quotable and hilarious as ever, so what did we get with Dusty?

Honestly... I had a ton of fun with this album, and it wound up being one of those cases where I kept putting off this review because I wanted an excuse to revisit the album time and time again. Let me make this clear: for as much as I've said that Homeboy Sandman is an acquired taste - and this album all the moreso - if you can bend your mind to his peculiar juxtaposition of vintage, lo-fi soulful production, slightly overwritten bars, and wry sense of humour, you'll have a ton of fun with Dusty, which might just be among the best - and most underrated - albums of 2019

Now I'll admit it's fortunate that I recently covered Brother Ali with Secrets & Escapes, another project that could be considered playing in similar territory, because on the surface the two albums have a fair bit in common: relatively lo-fi production, veteran MCs who might be more concerned with tangled webs of dominant wordplay than making deeper statements, and a slightly fractured style of presentation. Hell, I'd argue that Dusty goes back even further in its framing and structure, with the ambling style you might get out of Native Tongues in the late 80s - and yeah, I'm a sucker for that era, especially when the tones are warm and melodic and soulful, but I do understand if his uniquely fast, low-key flow is not for everyone, or might push the question of 'oh, he's just rapping about being a great rapper, there's no unique ideas here'. Hell, that was a problem I had with the last Brother Ali album, especially when the new idea put forward was a really misguided one, but the big difference is that Homeboy Sandman is aware of this perception, and is self-aware enough to realize he's got nothing really to complain about being able to make a living as a rapper, so he's going to burrow into the weird nooks and crannies of his own thoughts and id. So yes, this album absolutely goes down odd tangents, like the unabashed but slightly questionable love song 'Picture on the Wall' where there is some real tension between the lines, or on 'Pussy', a song about exactly what you think it is and is easily one of the most hilarious rap songs I've heard all year. 

So yes, this is the sort of low-stakes underground hip-hop that can frustrate critics and some audiences who are looking for more and feel they won't find it - somehow this is a pass that critics have no problem giving your by-the-numbers trap banger, but beyond calling out that hypocrisy, there is more going on here than will be given credit. Take 'Far Out', which immediately establishes Homeboy Sandman as more outside observer - not that far removed as when Aesop Rock does it, but he's less acerbic and more contemplative of where he really belongs, because even despite those distinct memories of home, he rarely feels the deeper connection. Or take 'Name', which might feel like a hip-hop puzzle box from someone off the grid pulling a fast one on you, but it highlights more isolation and a lack of true direction that comes from someone in his unique lane. Furthermore, Homeboy Sandman has always had a fondness for the complications of human language and will take a slightly absurdist approach to examining breakdowns of that communication - how very Jean-Luc Godard of him - which is why 'Noteworthy' highlights both how fast his mind and pen work, but for every moment of poignancy he finds, it's incredibly isolating - the album ends on 'Always' highlighting it's inescapable for him, and it reminds me a lot of when Dessa highlighted much of the same on 'Say When', showing a real emotional core there! And he's not really that egotistical about it either - note how on 'Easy' he only describes his unapproachable wordplay as 'not difficult', never 'easy' because he's aware of the consequences of framing himself in that space and lane. 

And as such he knows his freehand, stream-of-consciousness style is disruptive and to many impenetrable, especially in the bite-sized era of social media contextualization, but he seems more bemused and curious than bitter or judgmental, and he's got the sense of humour to lean into disruptive impulses - although on a song like 'Step Inside' you can tell there's a little bitterness at how many great MCs will never see success and profit thanks to capitalism, and a song like 'Step Inside' shows the weird imposter syndrome that comes with making a living doing it like he does, and how the current system only reinforces that - hell, in the case of 'Lookout' showing how the outsider is valued as a commodity but never understood from Quelle Chris and Your Old Droog makes all the more sense. And that's the big reason I love that he included some love and sex songs smack in the middle of the project - a grounding human force that yanks him from isolation, and the greater sincerity in his delivery makes them all the more resonant, especially as he knows on 'Live & Breathe' how much he values that tether. And that gives him the freedom for songs like 'Wondering Why', which utterly blows Jadakiss' moronic musings from fifteen years ago out of the water with more non sequiteurs... that still feel poignant because they highlight failures of human communication and perception, and the distance between truth and what we perceive as such. Take the final lines of the song: I have no doubt Homeboy Sandman believes the moon landing happened, but it seems so unreal, so the separation between truth and perception makes it difficult to comprehend the distance - or, say, the distance between his observations and larger humanity. Some might consider all of this a closed loop of impenetrability and some have already dismissed it as such, but with the self-aware knowledge that it'll be heard like that - why else call the album Dusty in an obvious reference to oldhead lyricism for its own sake - Homeboy Sandman is making a much more interesting point.

Oh, and the music is terrific too! Yeah, this is one of those cases where I'm immediately more drawn to the intricacies of the writing than the production behind it, but said production is often so warm, textured, and genuinely pleasant that you want to come back and decode more - not for the first time it reminded me a bit of Open Mike Eagle's Hella Personal Film Festival with a more New York state of mind, and it's a great match. For one, the samples feel impeccably blended with the smoother grooves, and there's never a moment that feels out of sequence - yeah, there's going to be slightly kooky moments and some garish sample passages like with the horns on 'Name' or the shuddering warble of guitar on 'Step Inside' or the more lush swell behind 'Picture on the Wall', as well as the instrumental interludes that if I were to level a serious critique do feel a little superfluous scattered around the album, but there's a real warmth and colour to the pickups that feels scratchy and organic but never to the point of distraction. Take the thicker lo-fi fuzz around the keys on 'Noteworthy' that are split by the spare drums and bass - it's rough, but never feels out of place, and it flows reasonably well into the developed bass and choppy guitar behind 'Easy'. Same thing for how 'Pussy' rides its terrific bassline into that guitar-driven breakdown and might be one of the few songs that incorporates sex sounds without feeling overdone or trashy, and it rides a great outro into the watery funk of 'Live & Breath'. And that sense of flow helps 'Wondering Why' feel so breezy in its questions, or how 'Always' feels just jazzy enough off that bass and cymbal to click - hell, the most frenetic cuts are 'Yes Iyah' with the sort of African-inspired polyrhythm that I don't quite love but certainly respect, and 'Lookout' with its offbeat slices of oily synth that absolutely fit with the guests. And I can't even say this project drags - it's short but without feeling abortive, and there's enough colour to keep every song interesting in some way!

In short... look, you don't have to tell me that this is not for everyone, and I'm not even surprised by the lukewarm reviews... but I'm a little annoyed it feels like so few people have done the legwork to pull this project open. And sure, some of this inevitably comes for me as a guy who likes old-school hip-hop that is willing to dissect its own artistic medium, but the fact that there's real emotive humanity, a sense of humour, and a light touch does this project a ton of credit, similar to how EL VY broke down indie rock with Return To The Moon. In other words, a light 9/10, absolutely recommended, and if you're in the mood for a masterful artist to add another considerable notch to his belt, you need to check this out yesterday. I might be late to the punch - again - but man, it was so worth it.

No comments:

Post a Comment