Rating: 4 Stars
Hip hop isn't typically associated with Rhode Island, but then, not many things about Sage Francis are typically hip hop. A one-time devout listener of groundbreaking groups like Run DMC and Public Enemy, Francis bears the torch of intelligent, politically conscious rap lyrics backed by killer beats. Francis, until now a strictly underground artist, made a leap above ground when he signed with Epitaph to release A Healthy Distrust. The album is only his second full-length release, but already Sage Francis is making a name for himself in the musical mainstream. An established battle rapper and spoken word poet, Francis is best known by his listeners for his insightful and introspective lyrics, both acknowledging and accusing, merciless and engaging, and above all, mind-blowingly literate. With an AA in communications and a BA in journalism, Francis is equal parts hip hop poet and political pundit. His songs can be heavy-handed with their political message, and at times can seem almost too verbose, but the passion and lucidity behind them is their saving grace. Highly politically charged, but with humor to spare, A Healthy Distrust takes on nearly everything in the modern political landscape, from guns to class warfare, healthcare to education, religion to the two party system. The West Memphis 3 get a mention along with Biggie Smalls, Christopher Columbus and even Ted Nugent's head, all finding their way into fifteen songs packed with cultural references and sly wordplay, Francis barely stopping for breath in between lines.
The album begins with a song called "The Buzz Kill," which rants against everything from radio programming to the state of the nation while taking time to throw a kiss of thanks at the French. "Radio suckers never play this/they're scared shitless of dismissing Clear Channel playlists/poorly developed yet highly advanced/black music intertwined with a white man's line dance." After working its way from City Hall to the court room, the song ends with a powerful declaration against the United States' post-9/11 fear and accepted racism toward foreigners: "Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free? Take them back. Your homeless tempest-tost to me? Take them back. The USA has cracked." Keeping with the liberal agenda, Francis continues with "Gunz Yo," a viciously satirical song which lambastes mainstream rappers' obsession with firearms, begs the world for a policy of non-violence and pokes fun at the sexuality inherent in the pistol metaphor, especially in rap music. "It might remind you of a mic the way I hold it to the grill of a homophobic rapper/ Unaware of the graphic nature of phallic symbols/ Tragically ironic, sucking off each others gats and pistols." In this song he is taking rap apart from the inside; using the very medium he decries to point out its fallacies. Sharp, aggressive and unrelenting, he takes modern rap to task with a wry facetiousness. "An intravenous hook up feeds bullets to my magazine/Nevermind the Bollocks, my pistol is a sex machine!"
The album's first single is one of the more easily rhythmic and accessible songs. Called "Slow Down Gandhi," it is "whistleblower versus pistol holder," and deals with welfare, healthcare and the disappearing middle class. It also manages to deal a sharp hook to the US president with lines like "Who's the one to blame for the strain of the vocal cords? Who can pen hateful threats but can't hold a sword? It's the same one who complain about the global war, but can't overthrow the local joker that they voted for." A Healthy Distrust ends in a more somber and respectful mood than is conveyed by the rest of the album, in a guitar and harmonica tribute to one of Francis' childhood heroes, Johnny Cash. It may seem like an unusual subject for hip hop, but considering the rest of the subject matter getting time on the album, it makes perfect sense in context, and is a moving, heartfelt eulogy to the late country idol.
Sage Francis may present his politics with a sometimes irritatingly heavy hand, but his songs are solid and his lyrics more literate than almost anything else in music today. Imbued with humor, intelligence and a well-informed worldview, A Healthy Distrust stands out head and shoulders above the mostly mindless, style over substance hip hop dominating the music scene today. Not bad for a 27-year-old white guy from Rhode Island.
By Brighid Mooney