Wondering where we’ve gone? Both John and Rob are writing over at We Listen For You. Rob is also still writing about Indiana music for Musical Family Tree and contributing more general arts features to Sky Blue Window. Thanks for reading and engaging with us over the last couple of years. We hope you will continue the conversation.
Rob Peoni: Twitter
John Bugbee: Twitter
It has only been 19 months since Stones Throw Records released Homeboy Sandman’s Subject Matter EP, his first project for the L.A. based label. But because of all the material he’s put out in that short time span (4 EPs, 1 LP), it feels like he’s been there a lot longer. The most recent EP, All That I Hold Dear, is his second EP of the year, following the outstanding release Kool Herc: Fertile Crescent. Like Fertile Crescent, All That I Hold Dear features one producer throughout. This time Sandman enlists M. Slago, a little-known producer he previously worked with on his album The Good Sun. Homeboy Sandman really seems to have found his groove with the EP format and choosing to stick with one producer for his last couple projects have made them the most cohesive works of his career.
As the title suggests, All That I Hold Dear is a personal affair. Homeboy Sandman has never been afraid to write about his personal life, but M. Slago’s understated, soulful compositions set the table nicely for Sandman to write some songs that capture the same aesthetic that Slago achieves behind the boards. Because of this, the EP feels like a welcome downshift from his usual intricate, in-your-face rhyming style. There are still plenty of the creative and skillful rhyme schemes that Sandman is known for, but on this EP in particular he sounds less focused on proving himself as an MC than ever before. Songs like “King Kong Got Nothing On Me” and “In A Daze” feature simple but effective choruses that sound meant for M. Slago’s beats, and verses that largely consist of playful boasts. While the songs aren’t nearly as ambitious as some of Sandman’s material, they stand out as memorable songs and are prime examples of Sandman’s versatility and ability to make any kind of hip hop song sound fresh.
The EP’s standout song “Musician” is one of my favorite songs of the year and instantly one of my favorites in Homeboy Sandman’s catalog. He uses the song to address the notion that a large portion of the world doesn’t view him as a musician because he’s a rapper. When Sandman raps “16 bars, 3 verses long/ it’s the output of Beatles album in one song/ No disrespect to Bob Dylan, but show respect for Madvillain” he’s speaking for a lot of people who treat hip hop like the amazing art form that it is, but are frustrated to continuously see its name dragged through the gutter. In the third verse Sandman pens some of the best bars of his career, summing up the existence of a modern hip hop artist from the inside, as well as the outside- “Musicians be amongst the greatest in the world/ but caught up in a game that’s being degraded by the world/ even though it’s imitated by the world/ don’t ask me why I’m jaded by the world”.
Homeboy Sandman has always been able to condense complex ideas and emotions into straightforward lyrics that are easily relatable, and “Musician” is certainly not the only example of this on All That I Hold Dear. He has put out several great relationship/dating based songs in the last couple years and “Relapse” follows that trend. He compares a failing relationship to a junkie who has kicked the habit and keeps finding reasons to relapse. Not only is it an interesting angle to use to write about a relationship, but features another fantastic hook sung by Homeboy Sandman that really gives the song a classic feel. His vulnerable musings on the tricks the relationship has played on him fit perfectly with M. Slago’s soulful piano based beat and really puts the listener in Homeboy Sandman’s shoes. He goes even deeper in analyzing his relationships with women and his mentality as a musician on “Knock.” The song features a great guest appearance by Gob Goblin, but Sandman makes sure that he doesn’t get outshined. He starts the first verse by stating that he wants “a girl darker than me” before contradicting himself and revealing at the start of his second verse that “I had a girl lighter than me since I wrote that.” The honesty continues as Sandman analyzes how the intense, bordering-on-arrogant, belief in himself and his music might make relationships (both romantic and with fans) difficult, but he remains “content to shoot warning shots over your head” and stay true to himself.
Even though Homeboy Sandman hasn’t released a full length project yet in 2013, with the two EP’s he has dropped he has put himself squarely in the conversation for the best rapper of the year. As he raps on “Musician,” “I’m not concerned with being the best or being better than you, I’m concerned with better than me”. Competing with himself has been good for Homeboy Sandman and forces him to adjust his approach on each and every release. While an uncompromising musician like Sandman may never receive the respect he truly deserves, he sounds like he’s having more fun making music than ever before, and might be settling into an artistic zone that could last a while. Just like Kool Herc: Fertile Crescent, All That I Hold Dear is being released on vinyl and is a unique opportunity for record collectors to pick up a great piece of vinyl for only 9.99. Check out the EP release single that Sandman put out to commemorate All That I Hold Dear’s release below as well.
Also, Indianapolis residents have a unique opportunity to catch Homeboy Sandman on tour with fellow Thought On Tracks favorite Open Mike Eagle a week from today at Sabbatical in Broad Ripple. Tickets are only 10 bucks and considering Sandman and Mike Eagle’s reputations as outstanding live performers, this is one hip hop show you don’t want to miss.
Connect with Homeboy Sandman via Facebook
Written by John Bugbee
Ka’s 2012 album Grief Pedigree was not only one of the best albums of the year, but also one of the best success stories hip hop had ever seen. Rap music has always referred to as a ‘young man’s game’, but Ka gave rappers on the wrong side of 35 hope that their best work could still be ahead of them. His completely self-made classic sounded both familiar and fresh at the same time. It utilized a strong word of mouth buzz and a few key twitter endorsements (Erykah Badu, Aesop Rock, & 50 Cent) to propel Ka from a virtual unknown at the start of the year to a fixture on the best of 2012 lists. Ka proved he could rap in the late 90’s as a member of the Natural Elements and later with his debut album Iron Works from ’08, but nobody could have predicted the critical acclaim that Grief Pedigree would achieve. His minimalist production style and stark, self-shot videos were the perfect canvas for his painstakingly crafted rhymes.
Grief Pedigree felt like a lifetime achievement, a gift from the hip hop gods. So when Ka announced he was releasing a self-produced follow up just over one year later, I was excited, but tempered my expectations. After all, this announcement was coming from a guy who was still holding down a day job and had just spent the last year shooting and editing videos for every song on Grief Pedigree. There was no way he could just spit out another album on Grief Pedigree’s album right? Well, The Night’s Gambit is here and thankfully, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The first thing that stands out on The Night’s Gambit is the production. While Ka’s barely-there beats on Grief Pedigree matched his monotone delivery perfectly, he was clearly an MC first, producer 2nd. While that’s still the case on The Night’s Gambit, his improvement as a producer is noticeable. His light on the drums, minimalist style is still intact, but the beats on The Night’s Gambit are layered with lush textures that insulate his intricate verses and at times force you to choose what to pay attention to. The production makes the album less immediate that Grief Pedigree, but helps set a thematic vibe that makes it an even better and more hypnotic front to back listen. If Grief Pedigree was Ka’s The Infamous, The Night’s Gambit is his Hell On Earth. All four albums are classics, but the follow ups are darker and more refined. They walk the fine line between pleasing fans wanting more of the same as well of those seeking artistic growth.
By kicking the album off with “You Know It’s About” Ka wastes no time in letting listeners know what to expect. The rumbling beat is one of his best yet and Ka rattles off a series of streetwise couplets layered his omnipresent wordplay, weaving every position in a basketball starting lineup into his verse in a way that’s not even noticeable unless the listener is playing close attention. On the album’s closer “Off The Record” Ka shows of similar skills by dropping an homage to his mentor Gza’s classic song “Labels.” While this type of song concept is nothing new in hip hop, the fact that Ka is able to seamlessly name drop so many classic hip hop albums in one four-minute verse makes it a remarkable listen and of the best songs of its type ever made.
Gza’s use of chess as a metaphor has obviously rubbed off on Ka as well, even stretching it further by adopting the viewpoint of a “smart ass pawn” on “Peace Akhi”. It features chess based vocal samples and some of the most clever couplets of Ka’s career- “I play chess, but my past is checkered” and “You just scratched the surface if you ain’t digging me”. The inspiring “Nothing Is” serves as the album’s emotional centerpiece and is perhaps the most transcendent song Ka has ever made. The song’s vivid lyrics illustrate the struggles that have brought Ka to this point in his life and allow him to proclaim “If this ain’t meant for me, nothing is”. Ka’s ability to be honest and vulnerable, coupled with his meticulous craftsmanship, make him so much more than your typical streetwise MC. He may not have the artistic range that some musicians have, but his depth of scope is almost unparalleled in the modern music scene makes his music endlessly listenable.
Ka effortlessly incorporates religious imagery into verses that are entrenched in street morality on songs like “Our Father” and “30 Pieces of Silver.” He never makes overt political statements, but always tries to give listeners a Wire-like view of the mentality that young black men grow up with in the streets of America. “Barring The Likeness” is married to these concepts as well, but Ka reveals how he had an epiphany and began to be able to view the traps that his brothers were falling victim to. The song’s unorthodox, hypnotic beat is probably Ka’s most accomplished production, and the best example of his evolution as a beat-maker. Ka’s unique wall-to-wall production is complemented perfectly by his excellent use of vocal/movie samples. I couldn’t identify them all, but each one adds to the album’s vibe and helps tell Ka’s story.
While it would be hard to say The Night’s Gambit is definitively better than Grief Pedigree, he clearly tried (and succeeded in) making it a more immersive experience. It make take a few listens for The Night’s Gambit to click in the way that Grief Pedigree did almost immediately, but when it clicks it becomes a focused supernova of an effort. Ka’s already two videos deep into The Night’s Gambit as well, here’s hoping the whole album gets the treatment like Grief Pedigree did last year (video playlist). Buy The Night’s Gambit directly from Ka at BrownsvilleKa.com.
Written by John Bugbee