Three weeks ago on the Triangle-based hip-hop message board "The Front Lawn," one user posted a thread about Sage Francis, the heavy-handed Providence, R.I. emcee responsible for "Makeshift Patriot," one of the most compelling, vitriolic post-9/11 observations put to a beat. One Lawn member described the 27-year-old Francis as a " self-righteous, pompous, hypocritical and well-marketed asshole." One of the most evocative slams came from Knoxville, Tenn. emcee Science: "Like damn near every other corny underground fucker that tries to rap and spit about the need to 'keep hip hop real,' Sage Francis and rappers like him mostly appeal to people who know nothing of hip-hop really by EXPERIENCE ... just like ... most of Jay-Z's fans." In a way, Science is right: Sage Francis does very little for anyone honing their skills listening to classic gangsta or modern bling. Francis' most receptive fans are people who learned about hip-hop culture by listening to it with an outsider's fascination.
But the argument shouldn't be interpreted as a dis. Francis is--without argument--a top-tier emcee sporting a linguistic and cultural vocabulary worthy of envy. His turns-of-tongue and multi-level puns are uncanny, revealing a well-read, ultra-eloquent emcee with a need to tell the truth no matter the consequences, denunciations or dismissals. He is this decade's most honest rapper, complaining about relationship difficulties and a constantly bleeding polyp in his vocal chords while systematically analyzing corporate media, drug companies and genetic engineering.
Francis is a rare breed, an eclectic musical mind who understands Bob Dylan and Neil Young (he references Kent State and "Ohio") as much as Minor Threat, Black Flag and Public Enemy.
Hip hop is his vehicle of social change, not his avenue to ass and riches. "I Freedom Kiss the French for their political dissent," he spars on the opening track of A Healthy Distrust, his third full-length and first for California's punk rock bastion Epitaph Records.
He continues with a confrontational satisfaction and a nod to Public Enemy's "How to Kill a Radio Consultant": "Radio suckers never play this / scared shitless of dismissing Clear Channel playlists."
That's par for the course for Francis, who journeyed last year on his self-crafted Fuck Clear Channel Tour. That system-imploding mentality is exactly what makes Francis so threatening to conventional hip-hop heads but so appealing to those enamored with beats and disenfranchised with bling 'n' crunk.
Sage Francis headlines a massive hip-hop show including Atmosphere and Grayskul at Cat's Cradle on Saturday, March 19.