Review Summary: Francis’ sharp wit and keen sense of wordplay keeps you hanging on his every word.
Sage Francis is a bit of a dichotomy in hip-hop music. His persona and self-aware style are so far away from the braggadocio that infests the genre in general, yet he has made quite the career of creating lyrical masterpieces supplemented with decent to excellent production. Francis’ style of rapping leans more toward spoken word poetry, spitting confessional and sometimes witty verses over sparse instrumentation. Many hip-hop purists would not consider Sage to be saddled with the genre tag, but he hits with some of the most interesting material of his career with A Healthy Distrust
. Although a bit uneven, the tracks on this record display all aspects of Sage’s personality. From the manic and paranoid verses of “The Buzz Kill” to the laid-back tempo of “Lie Detector Test”, Sage is not afraid to push boundaries and push his strange personality to the forefront. This ends up being what pushes this album into greatness, while unfortunately also detracting from the overall sound in some cases. At fifteen tracks overall, the album does feel bloated in places and could have been a bit more effective if it were pared down to a smaller tracklist.
The uniqueness of his delivery is not in the speed of the words spoken, but rather character in his voice. There is a weathered, beaten tone in his voice as he detaches himself and plays the role of storyteller in songs such as “Sea Lion”:
“Get in the bus, hop in the van
Jump in the water, crawl to the land
Build another castle out of sand
Break it down and then get into the saddle again
I'm going city to city, I'm already lost
Tell the boss who is new in town
I'll ride this horse till it bucks me off
And I'm forced to shoot it down”
The somber tone of the above-mentioned song plays directly into the morose lyrics, and this song is a perfect representation of how Francis shows the ability to mesh the tone of his lyrics with the music provided. He treats the mic as an open opportunity to spill his guts about anything from politics to relationships, and for the most part he doesn’t talk about anything that hasn’t already been beaten to death. What makes the listener continue to make their way through the album is the way that he says things, and the unique perspective that he provides on topics that may have been trite coming from someone else. “Crumble” is an excellent example of this, as he equates lost love to a disintegrating piece of paper over a simple but effective keyboard sample. “Gunz Yo” finds Francis utilizing guns as a symbolic reference to other rappers’ over-reliance to their “pieces”, and how that may be to make up for the shortcomings of other extremities. This tongue-in-cheek song is also the best showcase of his flow, as the bombastic beat fits perfectly with the overzealous lyrics about guns and phallic symbols.
With all the strong tracks that are present on the album, there are a few things that take away from the experience as a whole. The middle part of the album drags it down quite a bit, and unfortunately doesn’t yield any strong tracks at all. It begins with “Voice Mail Bomb Threat”, which is a pointless interlude/voicemail message about how Sage should probably steer clear of Detroit. I admit that it was unexpected and provided a laugh at first listen, but it just doesn’t honestly add any value to the album as a whole. That segues into arguably the worst track on the album, titled “Dance Monkey”. This was an overt attempt at a diss track that falls flat. The chorus is a childish chant of:
“Dance monkey, dance you god***n monkey
(Do that thing that's funny)
Do I make you wanna laugh?
I make you wanna move
I make you wanna dodo dododo do”
While the song is obviously meant to be dumbed down for a specific over-hyped Caucasian rapper (I think we all know who I’m referring to), it doesn’t change the fact that it is almost painful to get through. The album doesn’t really pick up again until “Crumble”, but continues to swell with ingenious wordplay and interesting beats, culminating with “Slow Down Gandhi”. The politically-charged song shows Sage at his strongest lyrically; and for an overtly political message, the song ages well and does not include specifics to date it to a specific time frame.
Sage Francis has created an incredibly interesting mix of personal experience and outside perspective on A Healthy Distrust
. Minus the lull in quality songs through the midway point of the album, as a whole it creates an intelligent look at the world around us and still manages to be more fun than most of the independent hip-hop that is out there now. Francis’ sharp wit and keen sense of wordplay keeps you hanging on his every word, which truly puts the music itself on the back-burner. It’s a shame on some songs such as “Ground Control”, as it boasts an incredible beat and complements the vocals on the track very well. A Healthy Distrust
boasts a more confident Francis, and is a definite step up from his last effort Personal Journals