There’s a whole hell of a lot of reasons to like Sage Francis. On his latest album, Human the Death Dance there are sixteen reasons, all with track numbers, but there’s more to it than just his music. He’s a literate and poetic hip-hop artist who looks more like a bouncer than the talent. He lays his life out on the line with every beat, holding nothing back, and when he’s not doing that he’s voicing his political views, popular or otherwise. He collaborates with the most unlikely partners including Bonnie “Prince” Billy on “Sea Lion” from his last album. On top of that the man is funny. Upon seeing his show at SXSW, in which he lip synchs to “Broken Wings” and gives a shout out to all the women over 30, I realized that he is more than just an artist; he’s an entertainer. These are just a few of the reasons I like Sage Francis, not even including this new album. Once you’ve heard Human the Death Dance, I’m sure you’ll like him too.
I would be absolutely mortified to find that some kind of writing, music or film that I had participated in as a grade schooler had found its way to the public. Not so Sage who introduces his album with a series of edited clips from his own childhood. This leads into “Underground for Dummies,” a primer on Sage’s life in the business referencing X-Clan, Chuck D, KRS-One and even a chorus that resurrects 3rd Bass. Now, it’s refreshing to note that through Sage’s variable speed delivery that not once do you hear him end a word with –est or use the term `most.’ This isn’t the LL or Moe Dee bragging of old. Sage tells it like it is, relating truths through his own story. Yes, we’ve all heard songs about the perils of the record industry, but we’ve never heard an artists’ encapsulated biography without an ounce of egotism. “Civil Obedience” is a song that he previewed at SXSW, and I still have no idea how he is able to get out the repeated tongue twister chorus of “typically cyclical simple civil obedience.” I almost couldn’t even type it right. Sage claims at the end of the song (and the beginning) that he’s never going to die. In a way, thanks to recorded music, he’s not.
“Got Up This Morning” is one of the standout tracks featuring guest vocals from Jolie Holland and beats from Buck 65. Holland’s fiddle and rootsy delivery are the equivalent antithesis to Sage’s rapid-fire rhyming as Bonnie Billy’s appearance, both becoming the chocolate and peanut butter combination that no one expected. Sage throws out references to Ginsberg and possibly the best line about Bukowski since Isaac Brock asked why anyone would want to be such an asshole. “Good Fashion” is a collaboration with composer Mark Isham, intended to be used in the cop family film, Pride & Glory, coming to a theater near you in January of 2008. Sage once again proves that it doesn’t matter what kind of music you put behind his flow, he’ll just stun you in more different ways than you can imagine. It doesn’t get much darker than the creepy lyrics of “Clickety Clack,” just warning you ahead of time.
“You are really not all that” is the message of “Midgets & Giants,” a track that finds Sage calling out young battle rappers who think that 8 Mile is true while also telling Suicide Girls that if they’re not dead, they’re not really Suicide girls, are they? Sports analogies and religious metaphors dot the landscape of “High Step,” nicely backed by staccato guitars. Sage revisits relationship theory in the exquisite “Keep Moving,” explaining why he’s always `one foot in, one foot out.’ “Waterline” is another film tune co-written with Mark Isham, slow and atmospheric strings in the background, the track more of a spoken-word poem, a la Ani DiFranco, than a rap, and it works wonderfully, even with the slight nod to George Michael with “Guilty feet do have rhythm. They just dance to the wrong theme music to amuse the villain.”
“Black Out White Night” brings back Jolie Holland on a track that builds as much momentum as an early DJ Shadow joint, and that’s not the only similarity. Things go back to the personal with “Hell of a Year,” finding our narrative hero expressing thoughts of his own depressive state after divorce. Since I’ve been there before, I know what he’s going through, and I know how hard it is to even talk about, so I salute Sage for putting it out there like that. It also probably saves him a lot in therapy bills. Social and political ills are the order of the day in “Hoofprints in the Sand,” where a silly sing-song intro quickly becomes as serious as a heart-attack, and Sage’s lyrics might just be the catalyst to cause one. He even slyly makes an allusion to the possible assassination of our president, asking “why is it no one else wants to impress Jodie Foster?” Being the dramatist that he is, however, Sage saves the best and most hard-hitting for last, the deeply personal “Going Back to Rehab.” There’s not really any words I can pull out without disturbing the fine balance of the story, so I’ll leave it up to you to take a listen.
Yes, there are a lot of reasons to like Sage Francis, but the most important one is that he’s just damn good. Talent combined with genuineness, honesty, fearlessness and smarts have led this underground hip-hop star to the top of his game, and Human the Death Dance is the result, his best effort so far. With his creative rhymes, universal themes and unlikely yet staggeringly successful collaborations, there’s almost nothing Sage Francis can’t do. There are a lot of reasons to like Sage Francis, but after being blown away by his flow, reason kind of goes out the window and you just start nodding your head.