While there are plenty of raps out there that are not as deep as the writings of Aristotle, Dostoevsky or even your average student majoring in Philosophy, most hip-hop songs deliver one or more messages (such as "I'm better on the mic than you", "I'm dangerous" or "As a society, we need to be more conscious"). They make some kind of sense, though it may not necessarily be profound or feature a clear moral or political angle. Perhaps they can entertain the audience while doing so. Some listeners may need a greater understanding of the historical context to get the references and other words, but usually you can understand what rappers are trying to communicate, even if they are not, say, gifted storytellers or commentators. Very rarely do rappers refuse to engage even in a basic rhyme pattern. After all, rap's foundation - the main thing that distinguishes it from other forms of hip-hop culture such as DJing and breakdancing - has always been speaking in rhymes rhythmically.
Homeboy Sandman's 'Veins' album opens with 'Between the Clouds', a quite arresting combination of off-kilter production - drums chopped into a very unusual pattern - and an abstract series of words sprayed via a disorientating cadence over a minimalistic clipped guitar riff and bursts of energy. The creative beat, executed oddly but with skill, thankfully just about stands up, but that feat seems far less impressive when you realise one can derive little depth, in terms of significant meaning, from his lyrics, although this song has more of that than most here.
Although raps are based on rhymes, great practitioners of the craft are about more than that. It seems that for most of this album Sandman fails to see that, and sometimes he does not even rhyme. That is the case at the beginning of 'Underground Dreams'. In the same song he also ends two boring lines with, respectively, "pay taxes" and "payin' taxes". Can you find a rap couplet that is lazier than that? Thankfully, its lyrics are not entirely bad, though, as it features the well-put ending ("Another life, another lie") which adds a spark of evocativeness to a largely dull set of words delivered in a way that is not very entertaining either.
'Clarity' and 'Consumption' also sacrifice the meaningfulness most of their lines' content, though this time in exchange for a clever rhyme scheme. On 'Consumption' Sandman lists many references ("Jackie Chan, Charlie Chaplin, Tracy Chapman") , and the song might make sense -- about -- but ultimately achieves little or nothing without some kind of purpose behind it, even if that reason for being is just to make you laugh, think or dance.
On the odd occasion Sandman does manage to drop knowledge in an especially interesting way as on 'A's J's and L's' ("Lots of folks that work for Satan rock a crucifix"), but despite the few moments of flair like those, the main problem with the album 'Veins' is twofold. Many of the lyrics here are either full of rhymes which try to be clever but leave the listener with no clear underlying cohesive set of messages (see most of the album for examples, including the bizarre-sounding "I sacrifice so fish can count to ten on land").
Other lyrics consist of statements that are expressed in such a straightforward manner that they are almost entirely uninteresting, even if they do rhyme or exhibit some other minor skill (for example, "I step aside for pregnant ladies, as well as men and women that are well into their eighties"). Neither approach makes for intelligently expressed hip-hop.
'Bless Up' starts okay but then becomes too tedious and repetitive, although Sandman sounds slightly more energetic here than on other tracks. The rhyming becomes more interesting towards the end.
Lyrics aside, the beats are pretty good, especially that of 'Clarity', with an Asian vibe which makes it sound like a DJ Shadow composition in the style of 'Six Days' were it remixed by DJ Premier of Gang Starr. 'Bless Up' is also arguably in the same ball-park as many Premo tracks. Despite the keys on 'Consumption', which act like a refreshingly cool breeze blowing through the drums, and the chilled overall vibe of the instrumental for 'A's, J's and L's', neither song takes the prize for greatest beat here from the weird but excellent 'Underground Dreams'.
Elsewhere instrumental elements of 'Veins' lack, even though the entire record clocks in at under thirty minutes. The 'Ceviche with Nietzche' beat is too bare-bones, in spite of the pleasantly funky guitar line adding meat to its skeletal backing.
Although none of the beats are worth five stars, are usually quite samey, and are almost pedestrian in their failure to attempt anything stellar or very different, they are far superior to the lyrics here. Most of Sandman's verbal contributions are - baldly put - rather terrible. The body of words presented here is an example of when admirable ambition to do well fails miserably to translate into great work. However, a generally consistent tapestry of beats stops the damage from being too severe after the sole wordsmith on 'Veins' falls flat. It is clear from earlier material that Homeboy Sandman is better than this, and although his attempt to try something different is better than a poor version of the old style, it is unavoidable that songs like 'Illuminati' and 'Couple Bars' are much better than anything on 'Veins'.