A Healthy Distrust
Radio first introduced me to Sage Francis, which is surprising. He's a white rap artist who has mostly existed under the radar so far, never touching on the mainstream. However, I happen to have a decent alternative radio station in Portland, Oregon where the DJs are given some leeway to play music that they like, but that isn't on the official playlist. The first song I heard from Sage Francis was "Hey Bobby," which actually is from his band Non-Prophets, a collaboration between Sage and Joe Beats. I immediately loved the song, which combined hip hop with some very explicit social and political commentary. From that song, I found "Makeshift Patriot," which Sage wrote, recorded and released shortly after 9/11. It acted as a commentary on the media post-9/11 and Sage did not hold back in what he thought were the media's failings.
Strangely, I have yet to pick up either the Non-Prophets album, Hope, or the more recent solo CD from Sage titled Personal Journals. I keep meaning to grab them, but haven't done it yet. Therefore, when I had the chance to snag a review copy of Sage's new album, A Healthy Distrust, from Epitaph, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to finally have a full length album to see if he held up as well throughout an entire CD as he did in those two songs I had heard.
I'm happy to say that he is just as impressive in full length form as he is in single tracks. In fact, A Healthy Distrust is one hell of an album, ripping through fifteen songs of surprising diversity. Sage Francis is Epitaph's first hip hop artist and it's easy to see why they signed him. He is an incredible musical talent and a truly great writer. The lyrics on display in this album are very impressive, ranging from personal reflection to social and political commentary. Furthermore, none of these songs sound alike. There's a great diversity and range on the album, leaving it feeling fresh throughout.
Sage has been compared favorably to Eminem in many reviews and I'm just going to go ahead and do the same here. My experience with rap is limited. I like some of Eminem's work and I'm a fan of a lot of what 2Pac put out, but I don't own many other rap albums. Much of the hate, homophobia and misogyny that is on display in many mainstream rap artists turns me off and I haven't yet gathered enough motivation to really delve into the underground and less mainstream realms of rap, in which there seems to be some amazing talent lurking. Now, when Eminem turns away from his own immaturity and becomes intent on writing personal and emotional songs, I think he turns out some true art. In a way, Sage Francis is like Eminem on his best day, but much better. Best of all, he's always in that mode and doesn't bother with the immature filler. He just wants to make great, personal rap music.
Boy, does he succeed with A Healthy Distrust. The writing on this album is very impressive and becomes more and more compelling with each listen. When you first hear the album, the music and lyrics feel like an all out assault, but an invigorating one. You may pick out a line here and there, but you don't truly get into and hear the lyrics--you don't really come to comprehend and understand them--until you've listened to the album multiple times. For this reason alone, it grows better and better with each successive experience.
Sage doesn't mess around here. His politics are made clear throughout and he's pissed off about hate and discrimination, about the political state of the country since 9/11, about the media and fear and paranoia and he's angry at both of America's political parties. I suppose you could say that he is liberal, but I'd be cautious to paint him with any broad term. More specifically, he seems pissed off and disappointed and not afraid to say so. In "Slow Down Gandhi," for instance, Sage clearly rails against the economic realities of today, singing, "They demonized welfare. Middle class eliminated. / The rich get richer til the poor get educated." He takes swipes at the Iraq war, as well: "You need to cut the noose, but you don't believe in scissors. / You support the troops by wearing yellow ribbons? / Just bring home my motherfucking brothers and sisters." And yet, the song is not just a polemic against those who are in power. It's clear that Sage is taking just as many shots at liberals who talk a big game, but are reluctant to go out and fight. He sings, "Because when push turns to shove you jump into your forefather's arms. / He's a banker. You're part of the system. / Off go the dreadlocks, in comes the income." Later in the song, he adds, "Who's the one to blame for the strain of the vocal cords? / Who can pen hateful threats but can't hold a sword? / It's the same ones who complain about the global war / But can't overthrow the local joker that they voted for." Sage may not like the political direction of the country, but he seems just as angry about those who complain about it, then do nothing to actually change our social and political situation.
The album isn't all politics, though. There's plenty of social and personal commentary, as well. In "Gunz Yo," Sage takes to task the male notion that guns equal power and sexual prowess. He mocks the obsession with firearms in rap and hip hop. "This dick is a detachable penis. / An extension of my manhood, positioned like a fetus. / An intravenous hook up feeds bullets to my magazine. / Nevermind the Bullocks, my pistol is a sex machine!" Best of all, the track sounds much like a typical rap song filled with serious gun-worshipping and if you're not paying attention, you could start to believe it is exactly that. Listen to the lyrics, though, and you'll realize that this is Sage ruthlessly ridiculing the very thought that guns can make a man.
In terms of his more personal writing, I particularly like the song "Agony In Her Body." It is dark and melancholic, dwelling on violence and misogyny. It deals with the ties, too often found, between sex and violence and how it can come to consume a relationship. As is often the case, the music fits the lyrics and the mood, leaving the listener disturbed and uneasy. The song begins with, "Day one, I played with her blood. / Day two left her face bruised and we called it making love. / Day three her blood played with me. / Dirty talk caught me off guard. She had the nerve to ask if I thought she was crazy." Sage veritably whispers these opening lines, suggesting pain and danger. We know from the start, from the words and the tone, that this will not be a happy story but the tale of a relationship drenched in misery and dysfunction. Every word, then, is compelling and haunting.
There are better, more quotable lyrics throughout the album. While Sage dwells on a variety of subjects, he often works in metaphors and partakes in quite a bit of word play. His meanings aren't always clear, at least not on initial listenings. At times, you're left more intuiting what he means--by tone and context--rather than determining. It's just one more of the album's strengths that lends it a depth and will leave you playing it over and over to better grasp the songs. It also gives the album a longevity, distancing it from too many cultural references that grow stale over time.
I could go on. There is so much happening in this album that I could listen to it a hundred times and still be gaining new thoughts and insights, new possible meanings from the complicated and extensive lyrics. There is some talk that Sage is overly indulgent and self-obsessed and there may be some truth to that. But it doesn't matter, because this is art. This is great music. If this is indulgence, then indulge me, because I'm impressed and fascinated. It often takes smart, screwed up, pissed off and obsessed people to create truly great art. That's what we have in A Healthy Distrust.