Riding rap’s high horse

Sage Francis is trying to say something meaningful, but his message gets lost in the shuffle

Tom Horgen

There’s room for everybody in hip-hop these days: men, women, blacks, whites, gangstas, revolutionaries and nerds.

Sage Francis often gets lumped in with the last category: the nerds.

Nerd rap is political, articulate, white and always self-conscious to the point of self-deprecation.

Of course, Sage isn’t really a nerd. That’s unfair. He was raised on Run-DMC and Public Enemy just like everyone else.

But Sage is definitely different. His music is introspective, but beyond even what that word can describe. Eminem once said, “I’m what would happen if Bush rapped.” Meaning, he’s war on the mic.

Well, Sage is what would happen if Freud rapped.

Sage plugs us into his roving mind once again with “A Healthy Distrust,” his major-label debut on Epitaph Records (which also released Atmosphere’s latest album).

While sonically exciting – the beats are constantly morphing, often within the same song – his lyrics have become too complex. Many of these tracks seem more like a bunch of interesting thoughts strung together than actual songs.

Even his new protest anthem, “Slow Down Gandhi,” seems muddled. He’s speaking with such heavy-handed metaphors that the only people willing to spend the time needed to unravel his message are his core backpacker fans and the scribe himself.

One thing is clear about Sage, though. Ever since 2003’s “Hope,” the album he made with producer Joe Beats, the MC has taken a vested interest in critiquing something other than himself and the Bush administration.

Namely, hip-hop.

On “Hope,” Sage attacked hip-hop’s obvious flaws – materialism, homophobia and misogyny. He continues on “A Healthy Distrust” with the songs “Gunz Yo” and “Dance Monkey.”

And here’s the problem. While his criticisms are warranted, he encrypts them in such elaborate metaphors that they only prove confusing and a bit self-righteous.

“Gunz Yo” could be Sage’s attempt at mocking white MCs who rap about busting caps (such as Vinnie Paz from Jedi Mind Tricks). But at the same time, the song could also be aimed at the gun talk coming out of 50 Cent and Jay-Z’s mouths. It seems suspect that a rapper who grew up middle-class should have anything to say about MCs who have taken bullets because they were born in U.S. ghettos.

Even worse, “Dance Monkey” appears to be a sideways diatribe about commercial radio and the people who listen to it, which is fine. But when the chorus screams, “Dance monkey, dance you god damn monkey,” it’s not clear if Sage is being subversive – and saying that Clear Channel thinks we’re all monkeys – or saying something much more offensive (“monkey” in thesense of a derogatory epithet used by white supremacists).

While some of Sage’s targets seem worthy of his disdain, it’s odd someone who had to fight his way into hip-hop would be so upfront about throwing others out.