The hip-hop underground had gone cold and codified more than a decade ago, waddling in predictability just like the Puff Daddy pop-rap it allegedly opposed.
And then the frame broke again: The chip-on-the-shoulder, puffed-chest raps of Sage Francis and Aesop Rock, Atmosphere and Brother Ali, Doseone and his entire Anticon crew offered a fascinating throwback to the era of "skillz." Most important, though, they mixed that muscle with a lack of filter so invigorating it could frighten.
Personal Journals, Sage Francis' 2002 debut, was a standout. The underground had concerned itself with societal ills and gatekeeping, proprietary worries about the state of hip-hop. But Francis was the seething man in the mirror, a Providence rapper looking to expunge what he hated about himself.
Songs like "Inherited Scars" offered an unblinking, implicative analysis of his sister's experiences with self-mutilation. "Buckets of Silence" coughed up aggressive, vulnerable rhymes: "I just wanna crawl back into my mother's womb/I need a comfort zone/But obviously, I need to find another home to call my own."
More than a decade later, he's still looking. Though his emotional approach altered a revolution in hip-hop, driving stars from Kanye West to Macklemore toward emphatic earnestness, Francis has all but disappeared. Earlier this month, he released Copper Gone, his best album since 2002, but almost no one noticed.
Francis tweaked the very idea of how an indie emcee might be presented. He didn't conform to the "real hip-hop" archetype of an admirable, likeable syndicate for liberal sloganeering. He was a hot mess of trauma and emotion, trying to get through the day without cracking and powered only by a microphone and a head full of heinous memories. If he were a young man coming of age now, he might have a podcast or a video blog. Instead, he rapped his invective over gnashing, boom-bap mutations from producers like Jel and Odd Nosdam. In breathless delivery and with unmitigated sanctimony, he was a spoken-word artist who'd commandeered a powerful musical platform.
His stuff was overwrought, but it was designed to overwhelm. As self-aware as they were self-conscious, Francis and his aforementioned peers dared listeners to despise their smarty-pants bursts of words and from-the-diary angst. If you bristled at the honesty, you showed weakness, not him.
But by the mid-2000s, both underground and above-ground rap began to open up. Kanye West's The College Dropout cribbed a few moves from Francis' fling-your-flaws approach, mainstreaming the possibilities of being a messy ball of emotions. The frantic rhymes of Lil Wayne, the sadcore sing-songs of Drake and the anything-goes attitude of Lil B followed. When the mainstream takes your alternative as part of its core, what do you do?
Francis has yet to answer that question successfully, and it wasn't only the stars that compounded his problems. Politically engaged listeners who once embraced his outcries began to realize that being a loudmouthed "ally" to the oppressed wasn't enough. Francis' politics seemed to exist only to affirm for other angry white beardos conclusions they already held: Post-9/11, the United States is a fucked-up place. Mainstream rap is homophobic and sexist and materialistic. It's hard out there for a word-nerdy autodidact. OK, so what?
And as the record industry teetered, rap embraced the Internet as a means for DIY distribution and promotion. The underground flooded, making it hard for Francis to sell the embattled-MC look, as everybody was embattled. Francis pandered to his base. A Healthy Distrust, from 2005, was downright condescending, hinging on a pedantic street-rap send-up called "Gunz Yo." Two years later, Human the Death Dance radiated nods to Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski, the currency of cool for sensitive college freshmen. The move painted Francis as the creepy old man on campus trying to lure kids into his aged cult. Li(f)e, from 2010, even incorporated indie rock.
Some of Francis' early '00s peers have found ways around the static and the mess. El-P, the original independent angry cracker rapper, reinvented himself as a purveyor of scraping soundscapes with Atlanta's Killer Mike. He dissolved his long-running underground bulwark, Definitive Jux, and pushed toward mainstream success. Jel and Odd Nosdam, who made beats for Francis a decade ago, influenced the murky, IDM-like hip-hop that's slipped onto the radio thanks to Drake and energized the underground thanks to producer Clams Casino. They've remained interesting, relevant.
The aging Francis, meanwhile, could only watch as Macklemore, a Seattle pop-rapper with an underground attitude, raced up the charts with a gross misreading of his schtick. Like Francis, Macklemore is an unabashed white hip-hop head far removed from a major hip-hop hub. He internalized the underground's lecturing tone, but where Francis infused it with empathy and a knack for pen-and-pad rapping, Macklemore converted his platitudinous preaching into pop pandering. Francis' era of self-serious, nerdy-white-boy rap died when Macklemore's edgeless pap became a hit.
Last month, Sage Francis released Copper Gone, his first album since 2010. It won't push him to former glory, but it is his most stirring record since Personal Journals. "Cheat Code" lets Francis snarl again while giving his core fans the "rap savior" stuff they eat up, complete with cheap shots at the vacuous concept of "YOLO" and the obsolete dance-rap hit "Teach Me How To Dougie."
Francis claims that modern rappers take the easy way out, as though they are beating a video game with the cheat code. But Francis—an old guy desperately searching for new tricks and entreaties—has been playing with his own cheat code for the better part of a decade.
Aren't video games supposed to be fun? And can't rap music be fun? Who would fault someone for finding a way to make something more fun?
Sage Francis, the last self-diagnosed sane man of hip-hop: That's who.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A public disgust."