Indie rapper makes switch to a larger label
'Trust' Sage Francis' latest CD to bring solid collection of songs, best effort to date
Every time I've come across Sage Francis in person it has been weird. The first time he was standing on stage with duct tape over his eyes, telling us how he's "not a narcissist, he simply likes to watch himself exist." The second time he was in a mosh pit, throwing a friend of a friend of mine across First Avenue, in the Twin Cities. The last time, he was on his back on stage, freestyling while turntable nut-case Mr. Dibbs vomited all over him.
These aren't the actions of a typical "rapper." But wait. Francis is an "indie" rapper, (which means his primary listeners are white kids in cardigans or hoodies) so that makes it alright.
Don't call him a sellout, but Francis is not that indie anymore. He's no longer compiling discs of terribly recorded guest appearances and conference call freestyles with his buddies. He is now on major label Epitaph, and he's got awesome beats and a massive U.S. tour. He might be playing up a few leagues now, but his recognition is deserved as a radical journalist/rapper with enough skills to back up his big mouth.
My friend Anthony always said that Francis can make the listener feel uncomfortable, and he's right. Francis never drinks or does drugs. He doesn't eat meat or animal products, and he does a great job of actually living the progressive ideals many of us would like to live ourselves.
Speaking as a drunken McLiberal carnivore, Francis does make me feel uncomfortable - and I like it. Someone like him is necessary in the hip-hop world. He is free from a lot of the vices that tie many of his colleagues down, with his clear eye always trained on American life, hip-hop and himself.
The best part about Francis is unlike many of his underground hip-hop buddies, he actually knows where hip-hop has been. That is, he appreciates hip-hop's past and doesn't just write it off as substance-devoid rap about women and money - which will happen in 80 percent of conversations about hip-hop with fans of the kind of music Francis makes.
"A Healthy Distrust" is all-around better than anything Francis has ever done. He is an incredible rapper, but his releases up until 2003's "Hope" felt diluted, with hit and miss beats. This is not the case with "A Healthy Distrust." The album is focused, his flow is better than ever and the beats are unbelievable.
I chalk this up to being his first release on punk label Epitaph, where quality control and production values are high. Look to Minneapolis Rhymesayers' Eyedea and Abilities first Epitaph release last year, "E&A," to verify this.
The first track, "The Buzz Kill" is Francis' thesis, or "point of coherence" or whatever FYE English class device you want to use. Over a beat by Reanimator that sounds like Public Enemy producing, mixing and mastering the apocalypse, Francis introduces the coming content of "A Healthy Distrust" with a megaphone. He talks about his version of hip-hop, "black music intertwined with the white man's line dance," the medication of the masses "from strip malls to strip clubs/ they slip drugs into the drinks that kids love/ tell us to drink up and get buzzed." He also states his own foreign policy in these post 9/11 times, saying "I freedom kiss the French for their political dissent." Keep reading that one about the French; it took me a week to get it.
One track later, Alias from weirdo "rap" collective Anticon is producing "Sea Lion," the only track with a guest appearance on this album. The guest is hipster-singer-songwriter darling Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie "Prince" Billy), the beat consists of a thousand drums exploding underneath Oldham's acoustic guitar and Francis is rapping presumably about family relationships. This song contains one of my favorite quotations ever: "I'm going to ride this horse till it bucks me off and I'm forced to shoot it down." I apply it to everything now.
It seems like it would be hard to keep up this sort of momentum, but this isn't one of those albums that trips over itself after the first two songs - it is consistently good. Nor does it stick to one subject for too long. Many were worried that this album would be "too emo" or "too hip-hop" or "too political." But it's not any of these - every part of the Francis repertoire is represented with clarity and high quality beats.
Other highlights include "Dance Monkey," produced by Daddy Kev, an absolute banger that's all loud drums, guitars and Francis giving us more brilliant word play - "I don't have a God complex, you got a simple God."
The next track "Sun vs. Moon" starts off with a clever story about a DJ battle between, you guessed it, the Sun and the Moon, and ends with the most abrasive and memorable statement on the entire album: "God's not a woman, he's a big white guy in the sky, and the deserts are reflections of his eyes, he doesn't cry for us, but when he does, its cuz he's drunk."
The album slows down a bit at the end with "Agony in Her Body," "Crumble" and "Bridle." These songs are the "emo track" and a couple of songs about relationships. However, an emotional Francis track on this album never ends up wanky or annoying, even though a great deal of his underground associates have this problem (Atmosphere in particular) but not Francis, not on this album. In such a small dose, this part of the album is refreshing due to its honesty. In the right situations, it will be the most moving.
The album winds down with "Slow Down Gandhi," a sniper-rifle accurate depiction of most aspects of current American life. This song doesn't have a typical verse-chorus-verse formula, it is a composition that goes from screaming to whispering and back to screaming again. It is my favorite song on the album because it accurately describes the lives that we live in America. Rather than write down lines from it, I will let you check it out when you buy the album.
By Ryan Warnberg