Goddamn, you mean Sage Francis is still on Epitaph?! Evidently - if you'd like to believe the album sleeve, that is. It's been nearly a year and a half since the MC became the first hip-hop artist ever signed to the punk rock juggernaut - shattering the psyche of countless Matchbook Romance fans. But that novelty has since been lost, with Epitaph signing and/or distributing enough of the boom-bap to make it legitimately seem like a so-called major, major label.
Well, thank the punk-rock, hip-hop gods that novelty hasn't exactly been Sage's meal ticket, and prepare to absorb more of the man's scathing travesty, and sardonic excess of cliché. Oh, there's also that whole poetic-reflection-on-personal-demons/angst-ridden-folk-hero thing that he has going on...but it's wrapped in snide cliché, so let's not split hairs, here. The basic truism is that Sage makes it work, and it works very well. Why else would Epitaph fiend him?
Ah, 'cause he's one pissed-off, social-minded, skull-cracking, indie-thinking mofo. And if you focus on the indie-thinking part of the mofo you'll find that he's made a habit of supporting his fellow independent artists by (among other things) selectively dispersing production duties throughout the underground for his proper debut, Personal Journals. Production for A Healthy Distrust was, likewise, divvied, but the basement-beat aspect of Sage's background isn't nearly as pronounced - nor is the separation in artistic vision that comes with assembling diversity. And while Personal Journals might have a lyrical edge on Sage's latest, A Healthy Distrust comes with a far more instant appeal, avoiding the scattered survey of styles that helped define his debut.
This is not to say that cookie-cutter beats lay the foundation for A Healthy Distrust. Far from it. Enlisted for soundtracking are a handful of today's finest beat creators, including Danger Mouse, Alias, Controller 7, and Sixtoo - and if Reanimator doesn't get credit for the most (appropriately) vehement beat on the album ("The Buzz Kill"), he needs credit for making this album seem like the product of a lone creative body.
Atop the overall rock-solid production, we get the bread and butter that nearly needn't be mentioned; we get pretty much what we expect from from one of today's more honest, passionate, and thoughtful MCs - which is much more than we should expect. We get countless lines that would be compelling by text alone, if the words didn't have to live up to Sage's fiery expression. A Healthy Distrust sees a slight decline in the MC's well-known wordplay, though this can be pinned on only a few moments of bathos; there are easily enough flabbergasting turns of phrase, and striking commentary to make this claim seem nitpicky. Honestly, select any track on this album (with the exception of the interlude, "Voice Mail Bomb Threat") and give it your attention, exclusively. Listen to it twice. Then try to convey the exhibited skill, perspective, emotion, and intelligence, to someone who hasn't heard it. You'd better do a better job than 30music.com did, if you want to avoid the old "just-hear-it-for-yourself" maneuver. Though, this truly is an album that begs for subjective dissection.
Epitaph really scored here. A Healthy Distrust isn't exactly the definitive album to mark hip-hop's future course, but it's the perfect place for anyone unfamiliar with Sage Francis to start, while having enough depth to stay meaningful for a lifetime. Worth the wait, without a doubt.
by Brian Holm