Non-Prophets - "Hope"
No one likes Sage Francis. At least that's how it seems sometimes. Hailed as an Internet superstar after winning a Scribble Jam championship while wearing flannel and releasing a series of incredible tour-only CDs, 2002 saw the release of his Personal Journals on Anticon's eponymous imprint. The album's emotional poignancy tapped a new vein in the hip-hop canon, valuing vulnerability over machismo facades. Now he's teamed up with longtime producer Joe Beats to develop Hope, and if the album isn't a direct response to anyone who ever dubbed him "emo," it's proof he can play as hard in either arena.
Hope shows a new Francis altogether, employing bouncy cadences, explosive deliveries and complex rhyme schemes. A vast majority of the album is dedicated to various references to older hip-hop, including that of OC, Black Sheep, Beastie Boys, Audio Two, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, among others. He even drops his own crit with lines like "faker than Raekwon's stutter" and "Das EFX rocked that band-aid ten years before Nelly did!" His writing focuses on lighter subjects here, from his disdain for rambunctious children ("Disasters") to his views on commercial music ("Mainstream 307") to his eccentric nature regarding different facets of existence ("Spaceman"), making for a solid record that, in terms of both diversity and delivery, puts Personal Journals to shame.
The biggest testament to the looser nature of this album compared to his last is the inclusion of a fully developed song by his most popular alter ego. Riding a bass-heavy doorknocker with a foreign vocal sample, "Xaul Zan's Heart" is one of Sage's funniest performances, playing the role of a misogynist pseudo-pimp that claims to be "deeper than Sage Francis," "the life of the search party," and a "fairy godmother fucker," closing the song with "I am womanizer, hear me, whore." If you've doubted Francis would be capable of diversifying, this track should change your mind.
And of course, Sage is still fully capable of the emotional style he built his name on. Rapping over a swaying ambient track with lone trumpet salvos and subtle synths, "The Cure" closes the album with a tour-de-force, placing Sage in line as one of the best writers in hip-hop today: "You're not the travelling type?/ Then hide your baggage better," he tells a significant other, while the repetition of "when a boy writes off the world, it's done with sloppy, misspelled words/ If a girl writes off the world, it's done in cursive" stands as a powerful reminder to the inherent beauty of womankind. Paired with a sharp rhyme scheme ("Now I look for air pockets to pick, walk with a stick/ Start picking locks with it, opening up heart-shaped lockets with little arguments/ Tawdry trinkets start to split and contradict/ Those who say one thing but think the opposite") and a ridiculously tight flow, it stands as one of the year's most delicately and intricately written songs.
For a producer with such a low profile, Joe Beats makes an explosive splash in his first full-length effort. His chemistry with Sage Francis is apparent throughout the album, as the interplay between them on a musical and vocal level is something many producer/emcee teams still need to explore. Beats' use of beautifully raw drum programming hits like a more accessible Jel, and his mid-90s sampling style harkens back to Pete Rock and Prince Paul, or the low-end proficiency of a young Ali Shaheed Mohammed. From the floating, atmospheric keyboard of "Spaceman" to the triumphant horn-led acoustic guitar crisscross "Tolerance Level", Joe Beats easily manages to bridge the gap between forward thinking and traditionalism.
The only complaint I can come up with is that it'd have been nice to hear more of the introspective style they offer on "Come Come Now", but then, that would defeat the purpose of the album. Sage Francis and Joe Beats set out with an impressive goal-- to create the ultimate 1994 record in 2003-- and they succeed admirably, paying tribute to the past while revising it for the future. A highly valued reminder of the need for traditionalism in modern music, Hope stands strong as one of the year's best records.
-Rollie Pemberton, October 14th, 2003