Dissent is a tired phenomenon. People dress in the fashion, put the bumper stickers on their cars, and inherit the cause, but half of them hardly even know what they’re fighting for. Unfortunately, dissent has become as much an institution as that which it imposes. Its formulaic underpinnings resemble the bureaucracy of the establishment; and somewhere in that process, the idea is lost, though its verbiage remains, much like the fossil imprint a material body, long decayed, once made. The problem is that each side gets too caught in its rut and never bothers to look up at the road itself. Hip-hop began as dissent, as a massive protest against the music industry and culture as a whole. Now it has become a mainstay in pop culture, its icons advertising Pepsi and text messaging devices. Once again, we’ve seen a movement that once offered a challenge to the common perception become the common perception, and the price it has paid is its soul. And though a recent resurgence in innovation in hip-hop is alive and well, it still has a long way to go.
Sage Francis is one of those artists who have long tip-toed along the boundaries, frequently misunderstood and mislabeled; as an example, he was branded an emo-rapper until his release under the Non-Prophets moniker, Hope, showed his ability to express universal trends alongside personal issues. Furthermore, he sticks out like a sore thumb among the rap community; yes, Sage Francis is white, is well past his twenties, and attended Brown University, of all places. Now Sage returns with even more to say, and the results, as usual, are quite good.
A Healthy Distrust, Sage’s second full-length under his Sage Francis moniker and third in total, is another collection of songs concerning love, war, politics, and culture. Sage exorcises demons both personal and polemic, but, unfortunately, a few songs come across as forced. “Gunz Yo” expounds on the obvious phallic symbolism of handguns over a guitar-based beat, comparing gunfights to a contest to see whose phallus is larger. “Dance Monkey” features a pitch-corrected chipmunk-Sage singing “Dance monkey / dance you goddamn monkey / do I make you want to laugh? / I make you wanna move / I make you wanna rock,” fighting the chaotic beat for the center of attention. Fans of Sage will immediately recognize that as among the weaker hooks he’s ever written. Even worse, on “Sun vs. Moon,” Francis tarnishes an otherwise interesting concept and a dramatic beat with the bridge, “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 cuz he’s drunk / and he’s always fucked up” followed by the yawn-inducing “God’s not a woman / he’s a bitch.” Far from being the shocking statement that is obviously intended, this bile comes across as over-wrought angst and eagerness to surprise. Francis has phrased his sentiment on the subject far better in his previous work.
That being said, there are plenty of incredible moments on A Healthy Distrust. Album-opener “The Buzz Kill” starts with a subdued intro and blasts into an intense beat that mimics a buzzsaw while Sage raps: “I used to think that rappers had it figured out / brass monkey, St. Ive’s, Old English, and Guinness Stout / once a man, twice a boy / with a choice of vice / a voice of spite / and not enough poisons to pick to enjoy this life.” An obvious reference to the fact that he is a straight-edge, vegetarian, political rapper, this line is vintage Sage: subtle, yet bitingly sarcastic and viciously focused. “Sea Lion” follows, featuring Will Oldham singing the hook (an amusing fact, as Oldham is certainly a far cry from Aaliyah) and an excellent guitar-based beat. Sage delivers a few incredible verses, among his best yet, only to fall apart into a convincing emotional breakdown. “Crumble” is a poignant departure from hip-hop form; for the majority of the song, the beat consists only of a lethargic piano line while Sage laments: “Slave labor / you made me work for what I couldn’t have / diamonds cut but coal burns /nothing lasts forever.”
Of course, Sage’s trademark verbal acrobatics make frequent appearances. The man still knows how to work a metaphor and weave a clever twist on traditional speech: see “Because I’m still looking for my break and an autograph for my cast” and “Color me confused when they paint issues in black and white / resuscitate their grey-matter right back to life.” Unfortunately, A Healthy Distrust doesn’t feature as many quotables as Hope or Personal Journals, but worry not, kids, there are still plenty of lines that sound great in post-modern instant-messenger away messages; check out: “In a world where the girl’s got retro tattoos, all I’ve got is a gut and Velcro black shoes / …and grammatical mistakes in every sentence I speak / it doesn’t matter, I make enough sense to seem deep.” Your friends will totally love the irony.
As its release on Epitaph suggests, A Healthy Distrust is a more political record than its predecessors. “Slow Down Gandhi” is the best example; throughout the songs, Sage raps absolutely scathingly about the state of the union, covering such topics as protestors (“It’s the same who complain about the global war / but can’t overthrow the local joker that they voted for”), politicians (“You support the troops / by wearing yellow ribbons / just bring home our motherfucking brothers and sisters / cuz they don’t call the shots / but they’re in the line of fire”), the “disaffected youth” (“You’re all ‘give me ethnicity or give me dreads’ / trustafundian rebel / without a cause for alarm / cuz when push turns to shove / you jump into your forefather’s arms / he’s a banker, you’re part of the system / off come the dreadlocks / in comes the income”), the market (“If they could sell sanity in a bottle they’d be charging for compressed air / they’re marketing health care / they demonized welfare / middle class eliminated / the rich get richer / till the poor get educated”), and, most of all, himself (“The truth keeps calling me / and I’m gonna live to tell the story”). Of course, Sage maintains his trademark sense of humor throughout: “Presidential candidates can’t debate over an instrumental / let ‘em freestyle / winner takes all / when the music’s dead I’ll have Ted Nugent’s head hanging on my wall.”
Like any Sage Francis record, A Healthy Distrust is a complicated, imperfect, at times even contradictory view of the world through one man’s eyes. It’s a virulent mixture of political discourse, political polemic, self-aggrandizement, self-diminution, childish humor, and intelligent irony; but, above all, everything is pulled off with undeniable character. You may not agree with everything that’s said, but damn if it isn’t said in just the right way, and that’s already half of the point. Among the tired rows of dissenters stands Francis: askew, offbeat, and, most of all, fresh. In his own words from the album Hope: “Well, I’m your typical hip-hop political figure / but I’m not left-wing or right-wing / I’m the middle finger.” He’s simultaneously revitalizing both a musical genre plagued by a tired mainstream and the dissent it spawned, and ultimately, Sage Francis lies not somewhere between the two, but above them both.