Flipping the looking glass
Recalling the power, rage and eloquence of Nation of Millions-era Public Enemy, Sage Francis has broken off 2005's politically conscious hip-hop rallying cry with A Healthy Distrust.
Casual fans of new school may know Anticon-alumnus Sage as a leading figure in "emo-rap," a style of hip-hop eschewing the misogyny, braggadocio and sophomoric sexual innuendo for a more confessional, vulnerable lyrical flow. His 2002 debut album was even titled Personal Journals --- a far cry from "In da Club." Those with an ear closer to the ground recognize Sage as the winner of both the Super Bowl MC Battle and Scribble Jam. So what if he's a college-educated white kid from Rhode Island?
This isn't laid-back hip-hop for the cardigan set, despite an appearance from Will Oldham on the introspective "Sea Lion." Distrust flips the looking glass to expose anger at the government, perpetrators of violence both real and on wax, and the homogenization of media and culture.
Atop an ironic ghetto-blaster beat by Dangermouse, "Gunz Yo" laments the violence often glorified in hip-hop and skewers the ignorance and hatred of its authors. "It might remind you of a mic by the way I hold it / straight to the grill like a homophobic rapper / unaware of the graphic nature of phallic symbols / Tragically ironic, sucking off each other's gats and pistols."
But it's "Slow Down Gandhi" where Sage gets off his most pointed social criticism. A frantic, blown-out beat from Reanimator underpins a condemnation of governmental disregard for its citizens and their largely apathetic response. As dark a vision as Sage presents, he maintains an idealistic hope for a better future built on the lessons of figures from Gandhi to Ani DiFranco.
"If they could sell sanity in a bottle they'd be charging for compressed air / They're marketing health care / They demonized welfare / Middle class eliminated / The rich get richer 'til the poor get educated."
Sage definitely studied at the school of Public Enemy. His songs are more protest march than dance floor brainlessness. A Healthy Distrust is challenging, frightening and uplifting, and it affirms the power of critical thought and positive action set to beats.
By Matt Chandler