On the opening track of his new album, “A Healthy Distrust,” Sage Francis says, “Radio suckers never play this.” He’s probably right, too, since his songs sound closer to what you’d find in a slam poetry competition than the Billboard charts. Hip-hop could use a few more poets putting out albums, at least if what they put out is as good as this. But while the individual tracks of “Distrust” are consistently solid, Francis is often too literate for his own good. (A catchy back-beat or two — which aren’t lacking on his old work — wouldn’t have hurt at all.)
Francis, who played on Thursday night at Toad’s, walks a thin line between rap and poetry throughout “Distrust.” While the album never slips completely to the latter — in previous releases, Francis has had pure spoken word tracks — he never stops reminding us that his influences are wider than Ja Rule’s. He still references Biggie Smalls, but he spends more time name-dropping Fugazi or quoting Ani DiFranco (in “Slow Down Gandhi,” a song that berates the government, and the album’s gem). He is, after all, a white rapper in his mid-30s.
The album’s strengths come across immediately, and stay consistent throughout. Francis’s music is undeniably about the lyrics. On many of the tracks it’s difficult to catch the subject upon first hearing, and often reading the liner notes while listening for a second time doesn’t help. On “Sea Lion,” for example, he raps: “The force of my love was strong./ The sea lion lay down long./ Song in the air./ Why should singer care?” But regardless of their difficulty, the sheer fluidity and delivery of his rhymes makes it possible to feel what Francis is feeling, never mind wondering what he’s actually talking about.
The beats on “Distrust” are the biggest improvement upon his older albums, which is saying a lot considering the near-classic status of “Hope” by the Non Prophets, Francis’ 2003 collaboration with Joey Beats. The album keeps the drum lines interesting by employing wave after wave of producers for the album, nine in all — a fact that contributes to the thematic inconsistencies. On every track, the music captures the tone of Francis’ raps perfectly, from subdued introspection to angry iconoclasm, which is something that rarely happens in rap.
If there’s a downfall of the production, it’s the glaring lack of catchiness. The songs rely entirely upon Francis’s vocals, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering his skill as an MC, but as a result the 15 tracks often seem to be missing something important. Though Francis surely deserves credit for abandoning the traditional verse-chorus-verse structure of rap, it’s annoying that the songs also lack any musical motifs. (And while he mocks the repetitiveness of music played on the radio, a little repetition wouldn’t hurt.) Combined with the relative complexity of his vocal lines, both in rhythm and diction, the lack of so-called background music makes it difficult to listen to most of the tracks, since they simply read straight through.
The only other obvious shortcoming is the strange way the album’s tracks fit together. Despite its title, most of the CD isn’t political but personal. But this is only a tenuous connection, and the tracks barely seem to follow any sort of pattern or progression. The disjointedness of the album is exemplified by two random political tracks, “The Buzz Kill” (the opener) and “Slow Down Gandhi,” the second-to-last track. “Gandhi” is probably Francis’s best track since “Makeshift Patriot,” a furiously hectic song about the manipulation of Sept. 11. On “Gandhi,” Francis discusses the current political situation, especially the recent elections, while cleverly implying that non-violence isn’t necessarily the answer.
The unambiguously ironic “Gunz Yo,” on which he explores the phallic metaphor of the gun to an extent that would make Freud proud, is another highlight. In one of his simplest moments of the album, he raps: “I’m a man now. A REAL man.” What guy can’t identify with that?
“Jah Didn’t Kill Johnny,” a touching tribute to Johnny Cash, is a similarly effective track. The song comes close to being a hip-hop country song (but luckily doesn’t go all the way.) Apparently, it’s his version of sending out a tribute to his dead homie.
“A Healthy Distrust” is a collection of mostly quite good tracks, yet put together the result is relatively disappointing. “Distrust” never finds a consistent tone, and as a result it feels less like a comprehensive hip-hop album than a mix tape of Francis’ far-out poetry put to intricate but dull tracks.