Rapper Sage Francis has been something of a one-man Noah’s Arc in the flooded indie hip-hop landscape. First appearing a decade ago during what many consider underground hip-hop’s peak, he’s weathered the storm by not only surviving, but staying afloat with a career that, as Public Enemy’s Chuck D put it, created his own niche. At a time when many of his contemporaries are inactive and their labels have all but folded, Sage remains as unfliching as ever with the release of his new album, Li(f)e. The first Hip-Hop artist signed to Punk label Epitaph, Sage has been no stranger to bending, or should I say blending, genres. From his 2004 collaboration with Bad Religion to his work with Mark Isham for the Pride and Glory soundtrack, he’s exercised a discretion that has lead to a much higher level of quality control than most rap-based musical experiments. Entirely produced by Brian Deck (Modest Mouse’s The Moon and Antarctica , Iron and Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days) Li(f)e shows Sage’s rap roots remaining strong even when the breeze more closely resembles “Liu Kang Wins” than his “video games” freestyle.
The easy comparison here is to lump Li(f)e in with the ever-growing number of recent indie Hip-Hop releases that have attempted to dabble in indie rock. The main difference here is that Sage isn’t trying to recreate his favorite non-rap songs by sampling them and then attempting to sing. Instead, he’s enlisted the genre’s professionals, not for instant “cred,” but to genuinely add to his ever-evolving soundscape. Among those joining the party are Chris Walla of Death Cab For Cutie, Jason Lytle of Grandaddy, and the late Mark Linkous. Deck’s production gives the album a cohesiveness that allows these guests to play to Sage’s strengths. For someone who has never had another rapper appear on any of his official albums, the extensive guestlist seems somewhat daunting. However, their participation helps elevate the record above other rap records that have tried to emulate the indie-rock sound. Li(f)e is not a record that tries. It is a record that does.
That being said, it is far and away the single most esoteric music that Sage has ever released. Prior to Li(f)e, Sage’s most recent output was his 2009 Sick of Wasting mixtape that was strikingly his most straightforward rap release since 2003′s Hope. While Wasting did reaffirm that Sage’s Hip-Hop credentials were up to date, Li(f)e features Sage using many of these same skills in a dramatically different soundscape that, after repeat listens, display how talented he truly is. With organized religion and its direct and inadvertent effects on everyone’s everyday lives as the album’s central theme, Sage takes a much more subtle approach than many of his cantankerous conspiratorial contemporaries, choosing instead to make his points through some of the sharpest storytelling of his career. Beginning with “Little Houdini,” based on the true story of Christopher Daniel Gay who escaped prison twice to visit dying family members, the song seems like Li(f)e’s opening Bond scene, an action packed narrative that acts as an overture for what lies ahead. “The Baby Stays,” which tells the story of an unplanned conception, with each verse from the perspective of the father, mother, and unborn baby, is another highlight showing that the album’s boundary pushing isn’t merely restricted to the soundscape. Folks, what we have here is in every way the exact opposite of a DC Talk record.
But the album’s brightest moment comes from “The Best of Times,” a collaboration with Amélie composer Yann Tiersen. While Sage has previously tackled career-retrospective rap on “Underground for Dummies” and most of his 2007 album Human the Death Dance, “Best of Times” instead fills us in on everything non-rap related that made Sage who he is. As honest and vulnerable as anything he’s ever written, it’s a tremendous crescendo that’s still as hard to get into as a scotch-taped grade school love note. It, like the album, is challenging but exudes such a high level of professionalism that you’re either on board with it or have to step back saying “yeah, this is not for me.” Moments like that for me were the screaming children on the chorus of “London Bridge” and the background wailing on “Diamonds and Pearls.” I can appreciate why they’re there, but they just weren’t enjoyable within my listening experience.
With many Francis loyalists considering his 2001 debut Personal Journals to be his best work, they will be pleased with how many of its favored elements are taken to an elaborate extreme here. If Journals was the micro-budgeted cult classic horror film, Li(f)e is its million dollar Hollywood remake that stays true to the original’s spirit while updating it to be relevant and fittingly flashy for today’s audiences. It’s not for everybody, but Sage’s performance and Deck’s production make it an album for a very definitive somebody. Yes, Li(f)e is polarizing, but over time those who warm up to it will have something that resonates with them that only comes once in a li(f)etime.
We give Li(f)e a Four Out of Five
So until next time…let’s agree to agree!