Darkness and light, anger and serenity, tragedy and comedy - these extremes are contained in Sage Francis
, and they provide the foundation for Human the Death Dance
, his best album to date. From the moment its curtains open to their drawing closed, Sage's fourth solo album (and his second for Epitaph) evokes the arc of its maker's lifespan - literally spanning the decades from his first recordings as an eight year-old rapper (captured on opener "Growing Pains") to the stark contemplation of his darkest days (on the subtly affecting closer, "Going Back to Rehab"). Between those two poles, Sage proves he's not just a rapper, nor just a spoken-word artist - he's the best lyricist of his generation.
Providence, Rhode Island's Sage Francis
first captured the underground consciousness with a furious tape-only release, Homegrown Demo (1996), and then achieved renown as the country's best freestyle rapper by winning 1999's Superbowl Battle and 2000's Scribble Jam title. Sage won the second of those crowns wearing a Metallica T-shirt, hinting at his utter refusal to abide by hip-hop's orthodoxies, underground or otherwise. In fact, if there's an overriding theme to his career, it is this: where conformity ends, Sage Francis
After retiring from the battle scene, Sage drove his distinctiveness home on his first official release, 2002's Personal Journals, a pioneering manifesto for the poetically introspective style that has come to dominate underground rap. Where that record showcased his facility with epic storytelling, 2003's Hope was its polar opposite, a joyous affirmation of Sage's love for the Golden Era (late '80s-early '90s) rhyme schemes and bite-size boasts and barbs. Released under the name Non-Prophets, Hope offered not just a revival of the old-school idiom, but a virtual channeling of the energies that gave birth to hip-hop itself.
If Personal Journals was his diary-as-manifesto, and Hope his ode to rap's golden era, then 2005's A Healthy Distrust (Epitaph) was his album-long screed against the state of the world, a stinging denunciation of corporate greed, Bush II's war-mongering ways, and, most importantly, America's collective complacency. On that album, Sage was an activist in the purest sense of the term - a person whose words and deeds inspire others to effect positive change at every level: personally, locally, and globally. That's the guiding ethos behind the web-based community he co-helms at www.knowmore.org, which chronicles corporate attacks against democracy, human rights, and the environment.
On A Healthy Distrust, Sage was every bit the angry young man, his voice hurtling through the sound mix like a runaway train. What's initially shocking about Human the Death Dance, then, is just how relaxed the rapper often sounds - never complacent, but possessed of an understated confidence that reminds us we are in the hands of a master. That poise is all the more surprising when fused with this album's finely-wrought poetics, which document two of the toughest years of Sage Francis' life.
Over that span, the rapper's spent 14-plus touring the world (from North American to Europe all the way to Asia and Australia), been victimized by burglars while on holiday in Amsterdam, robbed twice in the same week while touring the UK, and lived through the painful break-up of a relationship he once figured would last a lifetime. If A Healthy Distrust presented the battle of Sage-against-the-world, Human the Death Dance is a document of Sage battling himself - airing out the trials, the misdeeds, and the hopes of the only person he can really trust: himself.
HTDD is an album in two halves, harking back to the two-sided LP classics of yore. The first section is loose and playful, the work of a microphone controller at the top of his form. On tracks like "Civil Obedience" and "Midgets and Giants", we witness Sage in full flight, calling out corporate whores and industry fakers with the kind of virtuoso flows few other rappers can match. The centerpiece is "Got Up This Morning", a smoky back-room blues number featuring the smouldering vocals of Jolie Holland and a relaxed honkytonk beat from Sage's old friend Buck 65. "Clickety Clack" also stands out as a first-half highlight; written in the hours after he was robbed in Amsterdam, this is Sage's revenge fantasy, a darkly baroque account of vigilante justice, and a stinging parody of the mindless thug-rap clogging our airwaves.
The song suite which makes up HTDD's second half is simply devastating, a mini break-up record rooted in Sage's darkest days but suffused with the kind of clear-headed lyrical wisdom that comes around only once a generation. The four best songs of Sage's career are found here, starting with "Keep Moving", which is as mature and respectful a break-up song as you will ever hear. Then there's "Waterline", which evokes the spectre of Hurricane Katrina and its terrible aftermath; "Waterline" is also notable as one of two pieces on the album (the other is "Good Fashion") drawn from the forthcoming soundtrack of director Gavin O'Connor's Pride & Glory, a film starring Edward Norton and Colin Farrell.
After "Waterline", we get "Black Out on White Night", a wistful reflection written in the midst of Sage's European tailspin. Here is Sage in the midst of his break-up, half the world away from home, drawing on his poetic reserves to make sense of a romance gone wrong. The album ends with "Going Back to Rehab", an uncompromising look at the rapper's relationship with addiction, and his most complete synthesis of content and form - a song that fuses his richest metaphors with his most stately vocal delivery.
Throughout Human the Death Dance, Sage sustains levels of depth and eloquence that place him in the ranks of the great American lyric writers. In its narrative ambitions, and its stark, often brutal honesty, Sage's writing is wholly out of step with today's musical climate, where young musicians seem afraid to bare themselves to an increasingly cynical public.
Who else besides old-guard warriors like Dylan, Young, Springsteen has the courage to tell the truth? Sage Francis, a man blissfully out of step with his genre, and with his generation.
"I have a great understanding of the power in vulnerability," he says. "The strange thing is that being open and honest is a power move; when you make yourself vulnerable in your music, you're given a greater power than everyone who's trying to hide their vulnerabilities, because you're free to go more places at that point. It just opens up the gates of creativity much wider. As an artist, I have no interest in being cool. All I want is to be honest."
Honestly, then, has he made Human the Death Dance, one of the decade's great rap records.