Along with Atmosphere and Aesop Rock, Rhode Island’s Sage Francis successfully ascended from the ’90s underground community to an emcee recognized in pockets of the mainstream for witty wisdom and sophisticated wordplay. The Miami-born Providence transplant quickly rose up the national ranks as a slam poetry contestant and battle champion, later finding himself featured in commercials for the 2000 Winter X-Games and the soundtrack for the 2008 film Pride And Glory. Despite being a provocative dual-degree holder, the onetime Anticon affiliate’s opinionated, controversial subject matter often has positioned him as one of underground Hip Hop’s more polarizing forces. As depicted by Shepard Fairey’s fiery winged portrait on its cover, Li(f)e hones in on, amongst other topics, Sage’s challenges organized religion. Building upon the lyrics for Hope’s “The Cure,” Francis suggests, “Life is just a lie with an ‘f’ in it.”
Despite, at one time, never being able to “get with a guitar riff,” Sage Francis has bravely chosen to revitalize his image by purposefully collaborating with Indie Rock artists without Hip Hop genre experience. After flirting with this transition on tracks like A Healthy Distrust’s “Sea Lion” and more heavily on Human The Death Dance, Li(f)e puts Hip Hop’s signature drums and loops aside and employs a more country-fried roots vibe. Under the creative direction of Modest Mouse’s Brian Deck and the likes of Amelie composer Yann Tiersen and the late Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, Sage’s spoken word is set to instrumentation such as acoustic and slide guitars, maracas, pedal bass, vibraphone, and violin. Although it defies convention, many of these sonic backgrounds finally make Francis sound at home, in a career where beat-selection has been criticized more than rhymes. In spite of more memorable melodies on tracks like “Love The Lie,” much of Li(f)e’s production varies in success.
Taking on the role of a news reporter, Sage Francis opens the album with the alt-country epic “Little Houdini,” a true story about a misunderstood Florida inmate who constantly escaped prison to visit dying relatives. Converse to this uncharacteristically straightforward tale, other songs are more metaphor-driven. Leveraging his roots as the co-founder of KnowMore.org, Francis lends his thoughts about the current events such as the economic crisis (“Diamonds And Pearls”) and ill-motive physicians (“Polterzeitgeist”). Feeling like an old man wanting to slow down life’s pace (“Slow Man”), Sage also reminisces about growing from failed relationships (“16 Years”) and the challenges of an abortion decision (“The Baby Stays”).
While Li(f)e took three years to complete, “The Best Of Times” surprisingly winds up being a scale-tipping last-minute addition. Inspired by an old letter to his girlfriend, the distressed chronicle takes listeners down memory road, shedding light onto Sage Francis’ history as a paranoid, obsessive youth who flirted with suicide. Regrettably slipping a love letter into the wrong locker, Francis rhymes, “At least I didn’t include my name / Thankfully, I wrote the whole note in code / And it had 10 layers of Scotch tape, safety sealed, making it impossible to open / Plus, it was set to self-destruct / Whoever read it probably died laughing / I wonder if they lived long enough to realize what happened.”
In comparison to previous albums, Li(f)e comes across as Sage Francis’ break-out solo album. Musically, he’s stepped away from the comparisons, and achieved genre-bending that others, such as Cage, stumbled with. Within the project though, there are some great fumbles. Tired lyrics and uninspired choruses such as the relative-assisted “London Bridge” and the Schoolhouse Rock reminiscent “I Was Zero” make Li(f)e debatable as Sage’s best songwriting. Although these more simplistic lyrics have singsong value, the project sadly lacks A Healthy Distrust’s aggressive anger and Hope’s quotability. Still, this is hardly underground Hip Hop in the traditional sense, and the moving musical passages accentuate Sage’s stronger verses better than any beat-maker of the last five years ever has.