by Sean McCarthy
Over the course of his nearly decade-old career in rap’s underground, Sage Francis has been called many names: college radio DJ, vegetarian, battle rap champion, slam poet, white boy rapper, self-bootlegger and even paid spokesperson for ESPN’s X-Games. On his newest album, A Healthy Distrust, Sage is poised to add another label to his ledger—Hip-Hop’s sharpest and most outspoken critic. A Healthy Distrust finds Sage fully conscious of his surroundings, be it examining failed individual relationships or the current climate of national politics. Armed with nothing more than his words and moral outrage, Sage takes aim and unloads on plenty of worthy targets—Clear Channel, trustafarians, ex-girlfriends, the Vote or Die campaign—and renders them all immobile as he tongue lashes them unmercifully.
Download an mp3 of Sage Francis’ song Slow Down Gandhi.
emphasis of Sage’s music has always been on his words, and A Healthy
Distrust is no exception. Sage has proven to be a master at constructing
words in a variety of formats, winning competitions in poetry slams and national
rap battles alike. All those championship trophies don’t guarantee a memorable
hook or a catchy chorus, but Sage excels at transforming his brilliant verbiage
into music. It’s a difficult feat that has stumped many of his competitors,
an unsettling fact that is not lost on Sage. “Just because a guy can do
card tricks doesn’t mean he can make a movie,” explains Sage. “This
is why you see a lot of battle rappers who can’t make an album to save
their lives. They don’t understand why the card tricks don’t work
on a record. That’s [for] them to figure out.”
That isn’t to say that Sage isn’t afraid to employ a few tricks
of his own on his album. The opening track—“The Buzz Kill”—uses
some clever wordplay (“Color me confused when they paint issues black
and white”) and stark imagery (“I thought suicide was a suburban
myth/I couldn’t see my own hands being the ones I’m murdered with”)
to deliver Sage’s State of the Union address. It is decidedly more concerned
with youth culture’s descent into vice than Social Security problems.
The cut, easily the most aggressive song, cements Sage’s reputation as
one of the more divisive and polemic performers in the music industry.
It’s the album’s following tracks, however, that make A Healthy
Distrust more than a self-righteous manifesto, as Sage isn’t afraid
to turn his gaze inward toward his own relationships and failures.
Sage tackles the heavy weight of stagnant love (“Bridle”) and the
contradictions of his sex life (“Agony in Her Body”) with the same
ferocity of his rage against military recruitment and genetically altered food.
The most successful of these introspective songs is “Sea Lion,”
which finds folk singer Will Oldham warbling a wistful chorus while Sage speeds
by with a conflicted tale of his career and his mother. According to Sage, “People
got to talking about us doing some music together and then we began talking
to each other about it. I had no expectations, but when it was all said and
done I was extremely happy that this collaboration took place. [Oldham] is a
favorite singer/songwriter of mine and the song that resulted from our collaboration
is one of the best songs on my new album. I’m always interested in collaborating
with people who are masters of their own style or craft.”
Sage is able to speak in specific detail about his own travails —witness
the opening lines to “Escape Artist,” where Sage laments the sudden
rise in popularity of a fantasy card game—he works so well in the medium
of metaphor and allusion that his personal battles become universal. “Escape
Artist” quickly transforms into a swirling narrative of self-destruction,
while the format of the song itself—verse, chorus, verse, chorus—becomes
an indirect parody of the formulaic industry from which he is trying to escape.
Sage points out, “I think that’s the only song on the whole album
that fits that format, however a lot of people wouldn’t consider eight
bars of tongue twisting lyrics to be a very catchy chorus. It’s not like
people can sing along to it or anything.” DJ Danger Mouse, on track with
his missive to appear on every independent rap album ever, drops by for “Gunz,
Yo.” DM rescues the wah-wah pedal from over-indulgent guitarists, using
it instead to create a surprisingly claustrophobic track that allows Sage to
wander from the similarities of pistols and phalluses to the mindset of stressed
Sage reaches his creative peak on “Sun Vs Moon,” a song that is
ostensibly about the fallacy of religion, but veers rather quickly into the
surreal. Sage envisions the Sun and the Moon battling for supremacy on turntables
(“The Sun was pulling cheap shots, doing commercial body tricks”)
in front of a hushed audience. The fairy tale touches on mainstream appeal and
artistic credibility, while also unleashing Sage’s fury at the impotence
of God. Sage explains, “It is most necessary that I make albums that push
my creative limits and capture my most definitive moments in mood and experience.
Having that be interesting to me is incidental. I could make an album that appeals
to the MTV crowd and still have it be interesting to me, but that’s not
on top of my priority list.”
A Healthy Distrust continues Epitaph’s recent success of Hip-Hop
records (E & A by local all-stars Eyedea and Abilities comes to mind),
a welcome development for a label primarily known for its punk rock roots. Sage
has no qualms about his status on Epitaph. “Hip-Hop and Punk rock have
a lot of things in common, but don’t tell the purists of each respective
genre that. As far as me signing to Epitaph, the Hip-Hop labels that are big
enough to handle the demand of my music put out shitty rap records and I don’t
want anything to do with that. Epitaph showed a genuine interest in what I talk
about and how I do my music, whereas the Hip-Hop labels poked around to see
what kind of molding they could fit me into. It is an honor to be on the same
label as the Rhymesayers, The Coup, Quannum and Looptroop, not to mention Bad
Religion, Tom Waits, Jolie Holland and Noam Chomski. It took a punk rock label
to treat Hip-Hop with a little respect and dignity in the 2000s. Irony is not
Sage Francis performs on Thu. Feb. 17 at First Avenue as part of Radio
K’s “Hip-Hop for the Homeless” with special guests Soliloquists
of Sound, Hartman, Medida. 5 p.m. All Ages. $12 adv/ $15 door. 701 First Ave.
N., Mpls. 612-338-8388.
Check out Sage Francis on his official website (currently
under reconstruction) at Non-Prophets.com.
Download an mp3 of Sage Francis’ song Slow