Rating: 4 out of 5
In hip-hop these days, all it seems to take to make a hit song is image, a hook and a Casio. But the current zeitgeist only makes indie rapper Sage Francis' new record that much more of a contrarian thrill. Standing opposite the simplistic club-bumpers that choke the airwaves is the combination of dense sonic architecture and intelligent lyrics on his latest effort A Healthy Distrust.
In sound, the album is electrifyingly diverse, ranging from trenchant hardcore to contemplative free association. But, the varying styles achieve an exciting heterogeneity that gives the record a beginning-to-end listenability.
Matching the amplitude of sound is Francis' rapping. From the slow, ruminative style of "Product Placement" to the machine-gunning double-dutch of "Escape Artist," his dynamic voice unfolds like a narrative, gracing the raps with versatility and punctuation. His rapping always feels like an instrument of emotion rather than just a rote exercise in technique, and that's what makes the record resonate.
Some highlights include "The Buzz Kill," whose assaultive, subterranean vibe is propelled by a clattering beat, a molten keyboard hook and a claustrophobically frenetic rap. "Sea Lion" is an arresting slice of Southern gothic, draped in the spare guitar and haunting vocal lilt of none other than alt-country prodigy Will Oldham (Palace, Bonnie "Prince" Billy). The fractured "Escape Artist" features a jaw-dropping chorus whose jungle-paced rapid-fire delivery would give Bone, Thugs-N-Harmony a run for the Benjamins. Reminiscent of artists like The Avalanches, "Voice Mail Bomb Threat" employs a nice bit of elevator-jazz pastiche. And "Dance Monkey," with its in-the-red blare, is an uproariously fun slammer.
Without a doubt, this stirring record is a great stride forward in Francis' already impressive work. Hopefully, on the broader wings of Epitaph Records, A Healthy Distrust will increase awareness of this truly gifted rapper.
By Bao Le-Huu