Homeboy Sandman can rap about anything and make it sound compelling—socks, rain, or good sex, you name it. That’s why “Fat Belly,” the opening track from his new White Sands EP, works well. Atop a jubilant tune, Sandman raps about his favorite foods—portabella mushrooms, fresh baked bread, and dark chocolate—while imploring you to broaden your palette. “Peanut butter and jelly be the jam, I wash it down with almond milk, Almond Breeze or Silk, whatever brand / Trader Joe’s they cost the least, Whole Foods though’ll run you at least a nephew and a niece.”
The fact that Sandman can flip a cheesy topic into Rap gold speaks volumes for the Queens, N.Y., native. He’s an emcee’s emcee, and one of your favorite rapper’s go-to lyricists. Battling Sandman is like playing Tim Duncan one-on-one or wrestling Bret Hart in the squared circle. He won’t break your ankles with a crossover or throw you from the top of a steel cage. Instead, he’ll dismantle you with clever one-liners and slick double entendres. You’re down by 20 points or tapping out for the loss before you even know it. That makes Sandman a rare breed of rapper, a cerebral observer who discusses attainable things to which his audience can relate. Who doesn’t like popcorn and pasta?
It’s not all fun and games on White Sands, the third and final release in Sandman’s recent string of EPs on which one producer handled the beats. This time, South London composer Paul White takes the production duties and offers a kaleidoscopic soundtrack for Sandman to ponder serious things, like the ramifications of disease and the freedom that death presents. At its core, White Sands is a loose concept album about the yin and yang of life’s journey. It seesaws between upbeat and downtrodden tracks to describe haunting aspects of our daily struggles. After “Wade in the Water,” which reinterprets a Negro spiritual of the same name, Sandman follows it with “Last Rites,” or the last prayers given to Catholics shortly before death. “The Butcher” represents the Grim Reaper himself.
White, who garnered recent acclaim for his production work on Danny Brown’s Old LP, is a natural fit here, his patchwork melodies a restrained compliment to Sandman’s meditative flow. White’s solo material can be a bit jarring, but these melodies remain firmly in the background for the EP’s 27 minutes. Like “I Saw A World,” which begins with a brisk drum breakdown before it retreats to a simple loop of classical piano and light percussion. From there, Sandman mulls his ambience with introspective flair: “Don’t see too many abbots, I see a lot of Costellos … the writing’s on the wall, ain’t any pics on the wall ‘cept Danny Aiello’s.” Spike Lee would applaud that Do the Right Thing reference. Elsewhere, Sandman is most visceral on “Echoes,” which details the imagined demise of a homeless woman he used to notice on New York City’s Lower East Side.
It all lends to a nice recording that’s just as good as Kool Herc: Fertile Crescent, the first—and best—of Sandman’s EP trilogy. Given the descriptions above, you’d think White Sands would be overly grim. Yet Sandman brightens the dark edges with fluid rhymes that mask the EP’s true intent, which—like every Sandman release—takes several listens to fully absorb. Maybe Rap Genius will get it right this time.