She rides gusts of wind just by the way she spoke/
She cries but loves to sing songs of freedom and hope.
-- Sage Francis, circa April 2002
Having sex for the sport of it on basketball courts...
I don't strike a pose, I strike a poser.
-- Sage Francis, circa October 2003
Aah, what a different a year makes. Personal Journals, the Anticon-released album that first launched Sage Francis (slightly) beyond the dedicated realms of tape traders and Scribble Jam attendees, was billed as an introspective, poetic, borderline morose affair in the same vein as Atmosphere's God Loves Ugly and Sole's Bottle of Humans. But Sage has personas like Kool Keith (including, most notoriously, the scatological heavy metal god Zaul Xan), and even the debut rolled deep with them. On Hope he showcases a side of himself more given to combat than contemplation, primarily by calling out the inadequacy of current hip-hop and, in timeless fashion, talking about how awesome he is.
The vibe, thanks largely to Joe Beats's tradition-hewing beats, is that of unapologetic early-'90s throwback. Sage seems intent on demonstrating his credibility in a setting more traditional than the abstraction of Journals, and with placing himself within a context ever so slightly closer to the main body of hip-hop -- for example, he twists and turns quotables left and right, alluding to lines by everyone from Melle Mel to Talib Kweli to Schoolly D, and simply shouts out another passel of geniuses. There are a lot of samples of other rappers thrown in, including Black Sheep and others of the class of 1991-92. It's Sage's own contributions, though, that are definitive; he constructs hooks that couldn't be much more canonical, "Doin' Damage" as he keeps it "F.R.E.S.H.", despite the depredations of kids with "No style" who " . . . ain't been where I been".
One of the standout tracks here is "Mainstream", which showcases both Non-Prophets unabashed nostalgia and Sage's warped sense of humor. Joe Beats puts down a groovy and chill loop that would've felt pretty much at home on a Tribe album, but mixes it up with a chipmunked-out soul vocal worthy of Kanye West. Meanwhile, Sage is on something more aggressive, checking other rappers relentlessly: "I hope you burn to death in the trends that are hot this summer", or, "Lowest common denominators let the art suffer / The only heart you follow is roadkill on your car bumper".
Sage has always occupied a weird place as a rapper. Now in his mid-30s, he's been doing this for longer and come into his own later than most -- Personal Journals featured tape snippets of raps he recorded when he was in his mid-teens. He's pretty unapologetic about adopting the vernacular of hip-hop, but always manages to twist things up a bit through irony or more sophisticated methods. He spends a lot of time slamming current commercial hip-hop -- but Sage's credibility (Rhode Island Slam Poet who attended Brown) is inevitably a little more suspect than someone like, say, El-P (NYC G.E.D. recipient from a broken home). It takes serious gumption, then, for him to call out commercial rappers, and he inevitably gets a little hamstrung by the differences of class and race that divide him and the subjects of his criticism. If we're intended to take Hope at face value, we've got to ask who the fuck Sage thinks he is to say that Jay-Z was wrong to use any means necessary, up to and including going pop, to get out of selling crack, and it's a complexity that Sage doesn't strongly address. But like I said, there are personas within personas here, and if you feel like being charitable you can just chalk it up to Sage being in his "early '90s MC" mode.
From one perspective, Hope is little bit like eating your favorite family meal, cooked by your mom instead of your grandmother -- still excellent, but with a few extra complications, and even imperfections, that keep it short of classic. Sage is following in the footsteps of the Native Tongues and others who, at a singular point in history, made some of the greatest hip-hop ever, and he almost inevitably falls short of that standard. But Sage is widely acknowledged to be among the top ranks of today's MCs for pure style, and the limits he places on his subject matter and approach for most of the album are ultimately Hope's biggest drawback. More than anything else, it's like watching a prizefighter in the ring with one arm tied behind his back.