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Sage Francis mixes instigative ingredients in his edgy raps. (Photo courtesy Anthony Saint James/Allentown Morning Call/MCT)
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Sage Francis never flinches when discussing the instigative ingredients he sometimes uses to season his edgy raps.

Well, almost never.

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Sage Francis

Human the Death Dance

(Epitaph; US: 8 May 2007; UK: Available as import)

Review [9.May.2007]

Questioned about a potential line-crossing line in the penultimate track of his new disc, “Human the Death Dance,” he audibly wavers during a phone interview from his Rhode Island home.

The source of his discomfort comes about three-fifths of the way through “Hoofprints in the Sand”: “There’s been too much murder and not enough martyr/ Why is it no one else wants to impress Jodie Foster?” he asks, after cataloging, with increasing disgust, the many social and political ills facing this country—anti-intellectualism, drug abuse, disregard for the environment, racial turmoil, intrusive government.

Of course, to impress Jodie Foster is the reason cited by John W. Hinckley Jr. in a letter to the actress to explain his assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981.

Asked if he had any misgivings about using the “Jodi Foster” line, the 30-year-old rapper replies, “Absolutely not. It’s a metaphor for why aren’t people taking drastic measures during a time of extreme horror. It is expressing surprise that there has been no attempt to overthrow the government. I’m not saying we need to do this, just that I’m surprised there’s no great resistance. Everybody’s just really docile, or on some drug.”

“Hoofprints in the Sand” was “a last-minute inclusion on the album,” says Sage Francis. “On this record I tried to stay away from the overtly political (material) that was so prevalent on (2005’s) `A Healthy Distrust,’ but I thought there was value in giving a nod back to `Distrust’ and not abandoning my ability to bitch and complain.”

Two years ago, after almost a decade as a pro in the hip-hop underground, Sage Francis rumbled to the surface with “A Healthy Distrust.” On that politically charged thunderbolt, he hurled shrewd metaphors and caustic commentary with old-school fervor and supreme confidence. His poetry slam background added extra voltage.

On “Human the Death Dance,” released May 8, Sage Francis turns his gaze inward. A moody, at times ireful, but generally absorbing chronicle of a life in upheaval, the rapper sounds chastened, wounded, resigned and vulnerable.

“The material I’m dealing with is as close to home as you can get,” says Sage Francis (ne Paul Francis). “I’ve gone through a couple of bad breakups—one that was very devastating—over my inability to maintain a healthy household. It sucked. There was other stuff happening, too. It was time for me to go back and get it out of my head so I could have a little bit of control over it.”

He also thought it was important to provide to people who might be hearing him for the first time “a clear, simple, play-by-play of how my career developed”—including having to decide whether to exploit the fact that he is white, or disguise it.

Parts of “Death Dance” can be grim, even harrowing. The single “Got Up This Morning” is a G. Love-style, blues-flecked tune featuring an Appalachian holler from Jolie Holland with Sage Francis comparing the bedroom to a terrordome. On “Keep Moving,” he sounds increasingly desperate as he contends with “a half-truth harlot” and tries to summon the courage to avoid “a domestic death sentence.” On the brooding “Hell of a Year,” he relates how his post-breakup life has become “all bone and curdle.”

Sage Francis calls “Hell of a Year” “the mothership of the record. It was the first song I recorded. It was me reflecting back on 2005. After the relationship fell to pieces, I had a bit of a nervous breakdown and so did the other person. ... I don’t want to put anyone on blast, but that was some really dark (stuff) for me.”

But “Death Dance” is not all gloom and doom. “Underground for Dummies” is a trenchant recap of Sage Francis’ exploits in an industry he says is full of empty promises, while “Midgets and Giants” is a slash-and-burn assault on hip-hop’s trappings, cliches and mythology.

“Underground,” says Sage Francis, should dispel any notion that “maybe I make this music on a whim, that I don’t record in a popular style of hip-hop because I’m unable to. ... I just don’t want to. That chorus-based stuff has ruined hip-hop. Lyricism has gone the way of the dodo bird. Literary technique has gone out the window. Now it’s `How well can I brag about my life?’ ... There’s no deeper message than do what you have to do to get money.”

“Midgets and Giants,” with its pointed dis of Eminem’s movie “8 Mile,” “is an all-out attack, me at a breaking point,” says Sage Francis.

“`8 Mile isn’t true. It’s a Hollywood picture, a modern-day `Rocky,’” he points out. “It’s fake and insulting. Rappers do not submit to a battle and get a record deal, so all these cats who dropped out of school to be rappers really (screwed) themselves. ... People need to have safety nets. So the message should be: Stay in school!”

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