After hearing the opening track to the 3rd full length from this master of all things spoken I started planning my 'fallen hero' review. With a heavy heart and a heavier pen I began the obituary of this lyrical wizard, combing through his previous two albums trying to find any predictions for this untimely demise. But luckily for Sage Francis and you, my worthy readers, I am not one of these people who writes a review based on the first few tracks, because by track 3 I was beginning to mentally screw up my previous review and was only too glad to find myself back at the drawing board. Where Underground For Dummies started things off with a predictable and unimaginative back-story to Sage's hip hop pedigree Civil Disobedience restores the factory settings and it's pretty much clever wordplay and tight rhymes from here on in.
After a string of EPs it was 2002's Personal Journals that really let Sage flex his lyrical muscles. It was a dark and and gritty portrait of a man on the edge and was followed up in 2005 with the awesome A Healthy Distrust. This was an upgrade from the first album in every way. The beats were massive and the rhymes fiercer than anything that had gone before. I guess Human The Death Dance falls somewhere in between - which is no bad place to reside in the Sage back catalogue.
On A Healthy Distrust, Sage confessed to having "more back issues than Guns n' Ammo," and this album shows that few of these issues have been resolved, instead they seem to have festered and grown more potent over the years. Like friend and fellow poetic genius Buck 65, Sage Francis has always written his own rules and has never complied to any Hip Hop cliche. Instead of dick-swinging lyrics and thugged-out, self-referencing imagery we get an outpouring of anger, self-pity and cynicism slotted expertly into well crafted beats. The variety of beats here is what makes this album so listenable. Clickety Clack describes its beat perfectly while the dark and brooding Call Me Francois sounds like a Terminator chase scene.
But here's something I don't normally say in a hip hop review - it's the slow jams that really steel the show here. The best moments in the Sage Francis live show are when all the beats quit and he goes it alone. He has such lyrical dexterity - and without a beat this really shines. So the closest we get to that on a record is when the beat slows down as in Water Line or is replaced altogether by a full string section as on the epic Good Fashion. But there is a run of glory on the last four tracks starting with the album highlight Hell Of A Year. This is classic Sage Francis - slow, dark and oozing with melancholia. Few hip hop songs are about failed relationships and lost love but this is Sage's forte and the power of this song is still ringing in your ears when you get to the album closer Going Back To Rehab. This is Sage's most adventurous song yet. At just over six minutes it starts with a gentle guitar melody with Sage rhyming fluidly and venomously slowly getting fiercer and fiercer until the beat kicks in and the spit starts flying. It's an angry and powerful way to finish this super-intelligent third album and if it wasn't so damn good you'd be reaching for the phone, dialing the authorities to warn them that this guy's gonna do something bad sometime soon. But musically this isn't that time thank god and shame on me for thinking the Francis crown had slipped.