With 2005's A Healthy Distrust, Sage Francis ditched introspection, the meat and potatoes of his earlier work, for fire-breathing activism. And who could blame him? A president he didn't vote for had just won another four years-- missteps into lecturing could be forgiven. The old Francis, the quirky, quipping storyteller, triumphantly returns on Human the Death Dance, his second record on Epitaph, to his unique blend of diaristic, down-to-earth meditations, eerie soundscapes, and loopy abstraction.
Not that an herbivorous slam poet from Rhode Island, to put it frankly, would be expected to drop politics altogether. The personal is especially political on "Underground for Dummies", a biting, but never bitter, record of Francis's long tango with the music industry. And he's losing patience with the close-mindedness within his own art form: "This is hip-hop for the people/ Stop callin' it emo!" Francis sees nonsense everywhere. On "Midgets and Giants", he lampoons subcultural bullshit across the board, from the doe-eyed disciples of 8 Mile ("a promotional tool, shithead/But not for you, shithead") to the sexed-up and curiously alive Suicide Girls.
And the mission to broaden hip-hop's palette (and palate) presses on behind the curtain, where usual suspects-- Sixtoo, Alias, Reanimator-- switch off with other outer-rim stars. cLOUDEAD's Odd Nosdam blends ghostly atmospherics and Golden Age breakbeats on the opener, while composer Mark Isham lends a swank, silver-screen drama to "Good Fashion". Isham's tender union of piano, harp, and strings nearly steals the show on "Water Line", a spoken-word diatribe on not doing your job, and not just in New Orleans.
"Got Up This Morning" sways to Buck 65's high-tech confederacy of fiddles and harmonica, before Francis' female companion poses that timeless question: What would Bukowski do? Pendulums may swing and paradigms might shift, but you can always count on underground hip-hop for those endearingly nerdy, English-major moments. If you decode Jolie Holland's dreamy sighs on "Black Out on White Night", rumor has it you'll hear Dante.
As you circle deeper into the record, whispers of the old confessionalism get louder and louder. "Going Back to Rehab" weaves allusions to the greats, Nas and Biggie, into a six-minute tapestry that encompasses everything great about Sage Francis's strongest album to date: Its neon rainbow of tones and moods, the almost telepathic harmony between producer and rapper, the riveting fault-line tiptoe between memoir and manifesto.
-Roque Strew, May 11, 2007