Never heard of Sage Francis? Shame, really. The old phrase 'you don’t know what you're missing' is applicable in this case. You are missing out on one of the most talented freestyle rappers out there today. An outspoken, lyrically talented young man, Paul 'Sage' Francis is a rare one in that he can actually atonally confront you with his material. You are almost forced to pay heed to the words being spoken by him. Very few artists (in my experience) are able to paint a picture with their lyrical content. Sage Francis is one of these individuals.
Sage's 2005 album A Healthy Distrust
holds a unique place within the label from which it was released, Epitaph Records. Noted for being the label on which Converge, Agnostic Front, and the Dropkick Murphys are signed, this record was the first rap album released on Epitaph.
Notoriety aside, this record is fantastic. Fans of intelligent lyrics (from the hip-hop genre or otherwise) will definitely find something to enjoy here. For instance, one of the first lines of the opening track "The Buzz Kill" spouts 'I thought suicide/was a suburban myth/I couldn't see my own hands/being the ones I murdered with.'
However, great lyrics help add nothing to a song without fantastic delivery. Rapid fire conveyance at one moment gives way to slow, angry bursts of lines the next.
Hip-hop has long been scrutinized for (among many, many other things) as being weak in the actual instrumentation of the tracks. Nay, even the snapping of fingers coupled with incredibly high synth notes can pass as the melody in a rap song these days. This is not the case with A Healthy Distrust
. Real, live drums can be heard, along with many different other instruments, such as organs and guitars.
How do the individual tracks hold up? Well....
The Buzz Kill
The intro to the album features a matronly, narrative voice sample that can be heard throughout the track. Francis' rapping here is top-notch as he jumps around from many different lyrical subjects, such as his own fame and the un-radio friendliness of his music. It is apparent that he is a natural talent, with a great voice to boot.
Standout Lyric: See above.
Some soft acoustic guitar and a woman's voice stating the name of the album give way to the second track, the single to the record. After a few seconds we are treated to...wow, some really good singing on the part of Sage. The background beat perfectly compliments the singing as it gives way to some rapping, and the continuity of the beat-to-voice compliment never ceases here, but actually becomes stronger. The acoustic guitar in this song is really quite beautiful.
Standout Lyric: "Didn’t say/give away/every piece of the puzzle/till' I was left with nothing/but I took it/upon myself/to crush it up/and distribute the dust."
The backbeat to this song introduces us to some wah-loaded guitar and some fuzzy synth as Sage does his thing. This song is about, what else, gun violence. There are some really graphic and disturbing metaphors being tossed around within this track, such as "A homophobic rapper/unaware of the graphic nature/of phallic symbols/tragically ironic/sucking off/each others/gats and pistols." This is one of the more angry, yet introspective tracks on A Healthy Distrust
. Every so often Sage will come into the background and shout the title of the track, and the synth will sometimes drop out completely, leaving only the beat and the statements of Sage Francis.
Standout Lyric: "Cuz' I know that/only stupid people/increase the birth rate/I'm just about/dumb enough/to hold up/a sperm bank."
This track begins with some very high singing on the part of Francis and some 80s power-ballad acoustic guitar. A very fuzzy drum beat can be heard while Sage shoots at the lip of several random subjects, seemingly personal yet you can equate them on a personal level. Perhaps its the way he delivers the lines. Machine-gun delivery ensues, bringing about a break to the slower, more concentrated lyrics. The beat becomes less fuzzy with time, but it is a perfect compliment to the rapping in the forefront.
Standout Lyric: "They call me daredevil/but I'm not precise enough/I'm professional/on an amateur level/I love my life too much."
This is a pretty standard hip-hop song, with the backbeat and fuzzy synth yet again, although another synth line adds a lovely compliment, making for a fantastic atmosphere from which Sage can melodically sing about casual drug and alcohol use. A bit of a change-up occurs, in which the beat drops out completely and it's only Sage spouting some random junk.
Standout Lyric: There really isn’t one in this song. This is a very weak track, although the chorus is very nicely sung.
Voice Mail Bomb Threat
We are now led into a very cheery xylophone part and beat, complete with an answering phone message in which the caller denigrates to petty insults and taunts the receiver to "come to Detroit...(where) I’ll be waiting with a hundred boys waiting to fu
cking kill you." Some more attacks upon the receiver's character with profanity in copious supply treat the listener to some of the less intelligent out there. Then, at random, some odd little voice appears, speaking apparently gibberish until the track fades out.
Standout Lyric: None at all. Filler.
This song channels some of the older gangster rap, with vocal accompaniments that seem to be plucked directly from an old Public Enemy or N.W.A. tune. Sage's processed voice repeats the track title until his normal voice returns to the rapping we've come to enjoy so. Really, there's nothing remotely unique about this track, so we’ll just skip on to the next track. However, the overall feel of the track is nice.
Standout Lyric: "Don’t live for the moment/live for the constant/die for what's right/or get killed by your conscience/there's a difference/between conscience/conscious/and conscientious/contrary to popular belief (you're none of these)"
Sun Vs. Moon
The next track starts with some beautiful lyrics and a fairly uninspired but strangely necessary background, with the same old backbeat as seen on other tracks. Francis' chorus is another melodic feat, showing once-and-for-all that he is an extremely talented singer as well as a slam artist. Lyrics here run with a general theme of cosmology and religion, with various references to 'the father' and 'God.' We are treated to a reprise of the intro and some more singing as the track comes to a close with some ambient noise and a phone call placed by Sage to some unknown place, clearly meant as a prank
Standout Lyric: "God’s not a woman/He's a big white guy/in the sky/and the deserts are/reflections of His eyes/He doesn't cry for us/but when he does/it's cause he's drunk."
Agony In Her Body
This starts off with some maracas and some bass, an instrument not all that prominent on this record, strange for a hip-hop outing. Themes seen in this song are very sexual in nature, dealing with STDs mostly, and Sage does it so well its unbelievable. We find that the beat is once again very prominent and once again very enjoyable.
Standout Lyric: "Ripped vocal cords/tearin' em' out/a mute manifesto/that you'll probably/never hear about."
Soft piano guides us into the next song, which sounds like a tribute, but also (based upon lyrics) a cause for introspection. This is the most beautiful track on the album. Some more piano and acoustic guitar lead into a heavier part, and it is clearly apparent that Sage was in the midst of a bad relationship. Rapid spouts of anger under a processed beat ends this miniscule masterpiece.
Standout Lyric: "You made me work/for what I couldn't have/diamonds cut/but coal burns/and nothing lasts."
A sampled vocal line begins this track, as some hi-hat hits allow for Sage to call for 'lost souls.' It's mostly just a drum beat and rapping for the majority of the track. However, the clarion-call for lost souls returns, and is kind of annoying. The beat appears again, however the track never really manages to redeem itself.
Standout Lyric: The end samples a live set, in which Francis shouts "I'm the motherfu
ckin' Bill O'Reilly of this hip-hop shi
t." as a crowd cheers. I quite enjoyed that.
Lie Detector Test
Some wonderful effect-laden piano and bass give this track a melodic feel as Sage becomes gentle with his delivery. This is a cute little track, some will enjoy this as a nice little listen. The lyrical themes are quite random, and it's fun to follow how they progress throughout the track.
Standout Lyric: "Natural face/affected by/the chemical leaks/grammatical mistakes/in every sentence I speak."
A female's voice mail message over some piano and Francis' speaking start this track, which segues into a tirade on breakups and reminiscing about the past. Sage's voice is incredibly epic in this song, and the snare-hits have me nodding my head with every smack of the drumstick head. This is an utterly cool and chilled-out track.
Standout Lyric: "Same fire/new passion/old flame/trade it in/for a summer fling/it's nothing like that sweet old song."
Slow Down Gandhi
The longest track on this album features some beautiful strings and a spoken verse from Sage as he gets angry. Elitism, MacDonald's, and push-up bras are targeted in the span of mere seconds as the beat only enhances the mood of this incensed individual. The best chorus on the album of "Slow down, Gandhi, you're killing them" is actually fun to sing to. The piano chords upon all of the instrumentation richens the track that much more. The song ends with an ad-lib of 'Ghetto Superstar.'
Standout Lyric: "One love/one life/one too many victims/Republi-crat/Demo-cran/one-party system/the media goes into frenzy/they're stripped of their credentials/Presidential candidates/can't debate over/this instrumental."
Jah Didn’t Kill Johnny
Strangely enough, this is a hip-hop tribute to Johnny Cash, complete with acoustic guitar and the crooning of 'holler at your boy.' Harmonica enters the picture, and this song really could be mistaken for a bluegrass tune. Francis' voice reaches a new level of power here, and you can tell that this is true emotion here. A superb way to end the album.
Standout Lyric: "Jah didn’t kill Johnny/he had a date with death/it was a slow train coming/and we've all got a train to catch."
When you get right down to it, this is a great album. If you enjoy intelligent hip-hop, or just general music that grabs you and makes you think and pay attention, listen to this. You'll be hard-pressed to be disappointed.
Sage's voice is simply beautiful and moving at points.
The lyrics are extremely impressive.
Some of the drum beats are generic and tired.
The middle of the album drags and is boring in spots.
Some of the samples are downright unnecessary