It is Sage Francis' self-inflicted precedent of thematically consistent albums that exposes the weaknesses of Human the Death Dance.
"I have to say... there are Personal Journals moments... there are Hope moments... there is ONE Healthy Distrust moment... and the rest is probably the stuff I will be most remembered by."
-- Sage Francis, blogging about Human the Death Dance, December 2006
Sage Francis is no stranger to thematic consistency. Personal Journals, his debut album for Anticon, was a virtual diary of his darkest thoughts and most personal ruminations, a collection of tracks that unfortunately resulted in the "emo" label he's been shackled to ever since. Hope, the album he recorded as Non Prophets with producer nonpareil Joe Beats, was a love letter to hip-hop, the utter antithesis of Personal Journals as it sacrificed introspection for self-aggrandization-via-deprecation and battle rhymes. A Healthy Distrust found a perpendicular to the line drawn between those two albums, combining the personal with the sociopolitical for an oppressively dark album with vaguely post-apocalyptic undertones. All of them are albums that carry common threads even as the subject matter changes, resulting in albums that work as such, allowing those albums thematic distinctions from the mix CDs that Francis released independently on his own Strange Famous records.
It is this precedent that exposes the weaknesses of Human the Death Dance, an album that, even in Francis' own words (detailed above), ends up all over the map in terms of lyrical bent and production style. If there's a common thread here, it's hard to find, to the point where Human the Death Dance could almost be Francis' next mix CD, except that it's far more accomplished in production and construction than any of those slapped-together diamond-in-the-rough style outings.
Of course, the good Sage remains one of the most quotable artists out there. "You can't make it to heaven with a high step," he relates on "High Step", weaving a lesson in humility into a narrative involving religion and high school football. "8 Mile wasn't true, shithead / It was a promotional tool, but not for you, shithead", he spits while shooting down unknown white indie-hip-hoppers trying to ride his (and Em's) coattails to success. And in perhaps the most laugh-out-loud moment on the album, he relays a conversation with a lady he's got a keen eye on: "... She dangled that carrot and then asked me, 'What would Bukowski do?' / Don't go there, he'd make you his mom / And then completely lie about it in a book later on". Obviously, he hasn't lost his touch for one-liners, and it could even be argued that as a whole, his rhymecrafting skills are as strong as they've ever been, given that those quips tend to fit better in the context of the songs in which they appear; where once, Sage Francis songs might have traveled into the realms of collections of lines, loosely slapped together for the sake of a verse, every single one of the songs on Human the Death Dance works as its own cohesive unit.
In doing so, however, Francis traps himself into his subjects, occasionally lowering himself to their level; how is he supposed to make the point that he's the freshest MC out there as he does on "Giants and Midgets" (undoubtedly one of the Hope moments on the album) when his chorus goes "You are really not all that dope / No na no na no no / But am I really all that fresh? / Yes ya yes ya yes yes"? That sort of repeated inanity completely invalidates the entire point he's trying to make with the song! Less egregious (but still a bit troubling) is the recycling of lines, as he does for part of the chorus of "Hell of a Year", with a bit first heard on his Sickly Business mix as part of "Love, Love, Love".
All of it adds up to prose that is arresting, certainly, but not awe-inspiring, as his previous releases often were. Eventually, the words simply add up to noise, placing the burden of interest on the production. Occasionally, the production is enough to rise to such a challenge. Francis certainly pulled out all the stops to make sure it did -- a veritable who's who of the Anticon production stable is here, with Odd Nosdam, Alias, Ant, and Reanimator showing up for a track or two each, all of them living up to whatever standards they'd previously set for themselves. Where the production really shines, however, is in the less traditional selections, the strongest of which feature Mark Isham, the renowned composer of film music (Crash, Men of Honor, and A River Runs Through It are just a few of the movies that he's scored for). Isham's heavy use of strings and pianos (and even a harp, at one point) squeezes a lot of emotion into the mere three-and-a-half minutes he's allotted on this album, a time made even more poignant by its lack of percussion. His cinematic style is perfect for the most dramatic of Sage's raps, brief as they may be. Buck 65 shows up to add some bounce to "Got Up This Morning" (on which Jolie Holland gets in a one-liner of her own: "What you want with a woman who won't do what you say?"), and I don't really know who Tom Inhaler is, but his live-instrumental backdrop to album closer "Going Back to Rehab" is exquisite.
That the album's strongest tracks are also its riskiest suggests that Sage Francis is now at a crossroads. He could continue to recycle the ideas in his previous work as his suggestion above seems to imply, and given the skill with which he does just that on much of Human the Death Dance, he could have a pretty successful career at it. Still, the sound of the Isham, Buck 65, and Tom Inhaler tracks points to a future in which a dramatic cinematic masterpiece still awaits. As such, the rest of Human the Death Dance can't help but sound like a bit of a disappointment, even as he continues to outshine 90% of the rappers out there in terms of pure lyrical content. As a primer, a first Sage Francis purchase, it's fine; in light of his previous achievements, less so. Potential's a bitch.