Mad, melancholy, messiah or maniac? Whatever you think of him, Sage has returned with his latest salvo against all forms of complacency, and it's simultaneously his tightest and his most intriguing yet.
Sage Francis is uncut. That's one of the few clear cut things I can say about him, really; he ain't one of those made-to-measure gangsta/super hero soft cookie MCs for the indolent disenfranchised in need of an embodiment of their fantasies. Well OK, so he's been something of a student political figurehead since the MP3 release of "Makeshift Patriot" on 11 October 2001, but he takes that body of listeners roundly to task on the new anti-war anthem, and lead-off single, "Slow Down Ghandi". He's trying to bring hip-hop back again as a means of communicating knowledge to the masses, because let's face it, the average white American probably trusts CNN as much as Chuck D these days. Sage may be a middle-class Rhode Island white guy, but he's no wigger (although in spoken word piece "Mullet" he famously declared "hip-hop made me not want to act... white"). He's the singer in punk band Art Offical Intelligence and feels spoken-word to be the only truely free form of (musical) expression, yet he also won Boston's Superbowl MC Battle and the 2000 Scribble Jam freestyle competition within months of each other (he snuck into the latter early by pretending to be -- of all things -- a heavy metal roadie).
In keeping with this adoration for hip-hop as an art form, in 2003 he put out Hope, an album-length eulogy to the Old Skool with longtime partner Joe Beats under the moniker Non-Prophets, on which he informed us that he was the "fairy godmotherfucker" who'd "diggedy-done this/[I've] diggedy-done that", and also "I am womaniser/hear me whore!". This was all after his debut album proper in 2002, which came out on Anticon and featured a lot of material that had been appearing on his self-bootlegged Sick Of... compilations, as well as a track called "Broken Wings" on which he portrayed the spirit of hip-hop as a fairy trapped in a glass bottle by uncaring hands. Personal Journals were indeed just that, a mostly introspective look at where Sage was in his life and as an artist; the press happily dubbed him the father of "emo-hip-hop".
Am I the only one feeling massively depressed that hip-hop has become so solidified as moronic materialist misogyny that anything intelligently discussing emotions has to be branded into a sub-category? Maybe I'm just pissed at ignorant label-happy hacks. Common and Mos Def are emo as hell y'all, you heard it here first.
At any rate, this staunchly independent, anti-establishment dual-degree holder whose last tour was called "Fuck Clear Channel" (but who got well paid when his spoken word featured on ESPN commercials a few years back) now has a deal as the first hip-hop artist on Epitaph. His production roster now includes an impressive mix of the established indie (Alias, Dangermouse, Sixtoo) and the talented undiscovered (Reanimator's kinetic scrambling of punk and hip-hop proving especially arresting on four of the 15 tracks). He's also got a fairly opaque track called "Sea Lion", which seems to be about the quest for love and features indie icon Will Oldham (and, on the single version sadly not included here, poet guru Saul Williams). Apart from that there are no guests, a rare enough thing in these rabidly musically incestuous days, just Sage live and direct, fusing the themes of his first album (relationships, pain, suicidal tendencies, sex) with the aggro delivery and hip-hop criticising ("I don't strike a pose/I strike a poseur") of his second. There's also an elegy to dear departed Mr. Cash, "Jah Didn't Kill Johnny", which rocks the guitar/harmonica combo and manages to slot some incongruous "holler at ya boy"s alongside lines like "Lord, take your filthy hands off the rest of my friends".
Ah yes, Sage remains resoundingly old school in another way, too: his pissed-at-God-for-not-existing atheism. This is most obvious on "Sun vs Moon", where the Devil and "that other guy" carry out a DJing competition and we're reminded just who would have the skillz (even though things end in a draw). The track's last line is: "The Devil is the fucking white man... rhyming". Arresting, although Sage leaves us no clues as to what (if any one thing) he means.
Indeed, while the overall theme of this album might be conflict (between man and woman, between artist and listener, between the artist and himself, between "Dead Again Christians" and intellectual conviction, between hopes and reality, between politics and common sense, between unhappy acceptance and desperate violence), Sage is so accomplished at making his streams of wordplay build up into a conceptual whole that he often sacrifices hip-hop's supreme ability to communicate directly in favour of witty, multi-layered tirades whose exact message is only loosely defined. Sure, opener "The Buzz Kill" sets up Sage as the "super villain" party pooper ripping the hip-hop community, the general public and America the political entity out of their complacency with a "voice like a hand grenade", but sees him coming to no conclusion other than "the U-S-A has cracked". Dangermouse-produced "Gunz Yo" is initally an explicit description of the homocentricity of gangsta rap, and as such constitutes an obvious attack at gun abuse (opening couplet "Gunz yo! I keep one in my pillow case/It keeps me safe when I sleep, still I keep awake" destroying the illusion of firearm-based security from the off) yet it shifts into a prolonged metaphor involving water, then shifts once again. Is "Escape Artist" about Sage's need to save himself from outside definition (be it as a hip-hop artist, by critics, by his public...), about the scene's need to save itself from its current passionless dead-end ("when I say HIP you say "shut the fuck up, we ain't saying shit"), about the need to escape from the emotional constraints of relationships (covered in more detail on "Bridle"), or just a general musing on the inability of human beings to ever really be free whilst alive?
Perhaps the very fact that I'm asking these questions is testament to the controlled power with which Sage wields the English language; he's made music that's as involving intellectually as it is physically. Regardless of your preferred response to "Escape Artist"'s "What's worth remembering? Verses defending the size of my manhood or confessional canned goods?" Sage transcends genre limitations and expectations with restless energy and poetic turns of phrase that keep his mystery (or, arguably, his lack of defined answers) intriguing rather than irritating. A Healthy Distrust bears up effortlessly to the demands of both casual entertainment and prolonged, thoughtful analysis. He remains most effective when evoking pained regret -- the unheard-but-felt "please" before the chorus of "Slow Down Ghandi (you're killin' 'em)" -- than vigorous anger, but you do get the impression that "the muthafuckin' Bill O'Reilly of this hip-hop shit" is slowly coming to terms with himself, what it is he wants to do, and just how he's going to do it. If you wanted to boil this album down to a few thoughts, they might go something along these lines: almost anything can be used as a weapon between people, and every weapon is a double-edged sword to some extent. This Sage ain't no herb. This Sage is a wise man. Uncut freshness for 2005, suckas!