Sunday, June 22, 2014

album review: 'copper gone' by sage francis

Let's talk about emo rap.

It's a term that's used with a lot more denigration and scorn than it really deserves, because it highlights the acceptance of the toxic posturing that can exasperate me with mainstream hip-hop and how honesty and authenticity are often less and less viable. Because let's be honest, it's a lot easier to write rap about the traditional 'cash money hoes' topics than actually dig deep and expose vulnerability and feelings and confessional subject matter. And almost paradoxically, I have a lot more respect for rappers who are willing to put themselves out there and expose those deeper emotions

And the mainstream has had a very complicated relationship with this sort of material, especially in recent years. Many would point of Kanye West's excellent 808s & Heartbreaks that strongly influenced acts like Drake or Childish Gambino, or would go a little further back and point to Eminem's artistic suicide on the much-maligned Encore, but to some extent these acts have retrofitted something from the underground that has been more open to this sort of confessional songwriting. And let me stress, I think it's a good thing that there are more mainstream rappers who are willing to approach this 'softening' of hip-hop culture, but I knew it'd only be a matter of time before an established heavyweight from the underground would step up to the plate.

Enter Sage Francis, rapper and spoken word poet and widely hailed as one of the 'godfathers' of emo rap, a term to which he's mostly ambivalent. Starting in the late 90s, he smashed into the underground scene with a succession of extremely solid records throughout the 2000s, with my favourite probably being Human The Death Dance in 2007. And what I loved about Sage Francis wasn't just his layered yet very understandable wordplay, his willingness to tell many stories beyond his own and comment on society as a whole, and his rich collection of uniquely textured and slightly off-beat instrumentals, but the fact that he was an impressive rapper none the less. Sure, he was willing to show his emotions and write how he felt, exposing his own flaws and failures which always rang as genuine, but you could never mess with him as a rapper. 

But after the indie rock-inspired album Li(f)e in 2010, Sage Francis announced he was going on hiatus and after a mixtape release last year, he's back with a full album this year - was it worth the wait?

Yes - oh God yes, it was worth it, because this album is one of the best records you will hear in 2014. There are very few albums that will be this emotionally evocative, powerful, and genuinely well-written this year than Sage Francis' Copper Gone, and the fact that this record has gone unnoticed by so many is a goddamn crime. I'll admit I'm late to the party here, but that's because this record is dense with multisyllabic wordplay and interweaving poetry that requires time to decode and process. Is it a perfect album? No, but it's damn strong all the same and will easily notch a high slot on my year-end list.

And honestly, I'm a little lost of where to even begin, especially if you aren't familiar with Sage Francis' style and candid delivery, so let's start with the opening moment of the album: a clip taken from The Last Unicorn of all things, where Molly exclaims to the eponymous creature, 'where have you been' - and while there are notes of pleading, there's also real anger in the delivery, a creature who she's wanted to see all her life and yet is angry to see now so late when she cannot recreate the fantasy she had when she was a young girl. And for a sample, it sets a tone for the album, as an MC of such rarity returns to the microphone to a world unfriendly, who greets him with desperate anger.

And man, Sage Francis can return it in kind. If we're looking for themes throughout this record, it really is just a snapshot of Sage Francis' feelings upon coming back to the rap game, and his absolute disgust at what it has become - or to put it in his terms, 'forefathers of stability in this industry have ridiculously fallen off'. He never names any rappers explicitly, even though you can tell there's one in particular who has attracted his ire for being, well, 'trauma porn addicts thinking that they're poets', talking about rappers who have tried to play both the street hustler and the 'sensitive' guy, which takes us to one of the main underlying themes of this record: honesty. Throughout so much of this record, Sage Francis is exposing hypocrisy after hypocrisy - including his own - that it's hard not to feel waves of incredible catharsis throughout this record as he calls out group after group. 'Grace' hits both an ex-girlfriend and takes appropriate swipes at those who condescend to him using religion or pharmaceuticals, 'Cheat Codes' are condemnations of the phoniness in modern brag rap, 'Dead Man's Float' takes some very bleak aquatic imagery and fuses it with a poetic criticism of modern hedonism and lack of empathy, 'Over Under' is a song thrashing shallow women that miraculously never comes across as misogynist, 'Vonnegut Busy' is social commentary that targets conformity through incorporating references to Kurt Vonnegut, one of the greatest sci-fi satirists of all time, and 'Say Uncle' targets societal constraints that even appear in the guise of being 'indie'. And what's incredible is the level of detail he brings to the table, managing to create not only stark, well-textured pictures, but layers beneath them that tie into the tracks as a whole.

But what has always made Sage Francis special is his humility in his framing: he never holds back from his own faults and failings, which really adds a profound sense of empathy to this record. He speaks about how much the death of his father affected his life on 'Thank You', and while they had a troubled and complicated relationship, his grief and complicated feelings are so well-articulated and nuanced that you feel empathy regardless. It's telling that it's when his father has died that he delivers such a lonely track - but then again, if we were looking for a secondary theme of this record, the seclusion and isolation in order to come to grips with one's self would be it. This was the thematic element that really hit me hardest, especially as a guy living on my own, because not only does it touch on the revelation of freedom that and the profound sense of relief you have when you're on your own, but also on how it's not exactly healthy, and it can scare both loved ones and society when you distance yourself, and it can play havoc on relationships, and it makes it so the few lines of companionship you have so much more precious. This is perhaps best expressed in two songs: 'Make 'Em Purr' and 'The Set Up'. The former touches on the relationship Sage Francis has with his pets - and even though I'm allergic to both cats and dogs and have never really had a pet, Sage Francis is such an emotive, descriptive, and heartfelt MC that I understood his desperation and fear that underscored the song when one of his cats got sick. And then 'The Set Up', which is so unflinchingly honest about how he deals with fame that seems to give him profound discomfort - but it's a feeling of discomfort we all have when we're given the choice between a family that loves but doesn't understand and a lonely road that might bring glory but sacrifices so much along the way. 

And yet despite how incredibly strong the rapping is, the production is damn stellar as well. Sage Francis has always had a taste for melodic, varied production, and he gets some of his best here. The keyboard melody underscoring 'Grace', the ominous growling guitars of 'ID Thieves', the rich futuristic synths and heavy percussion of 'Cheat Codes' and 'The Place She Feared Most', the ragged strings of 'Over Under', the grimy keyboards of 'Make Em Purr', the old-school dusty percussion and guitars of 'Vonnegut Busy', the watery echoes of 'Once Upon A Blood Moon', and the gothic intensity of 'Say Uncle', all of them create an incredibly immersive picture without ever becoming overstated. And Sage Francis sounds great over this production: his tones clear, emotive, and genuinely engaging simply beyond his wordplay.

So with all of this praise, where are the flaws? Well, they are few and fair between, but mostly just a couple nitpicks. For instance, on his Cecil Otter-produced tracks, I'm not the biggest fan of Sage Francis singing those hooks - maybe its the backing vocals overlayed, but it comes across as a little melodramatic to me. And while I love the poetry on this record, there are a few scattered lyrics that didn't quite stick the landing: the biggest one being on 'MAINT REQD' with 'in the lands of the pigs, the butcher is king'. It's a solid line, but it's also one that Meat Loaf used on his Bat Out Of Hell III album in 2006 and it immediately snaps me out of the song. A larger issue would probably be in the sequencing of this record - while I do love the songs individually, the pacing of this album feels a little off-kilter, with 'Grace' being placed very early and the last tracks likely sounding better in the middle of the album and thus there isn't really that solid thesis moments that hammers the emotional arc of the record for me. 

But man, that's nitpicking, because Copper Gone by Sage Francis is goddamn phenomenal for its poetry, its cohesion, and its emotional weight. Is it beter than Human The Death Dance, my favourite Sage Francis? Honestly, tough question, 'cause it's really close, but either way it takes nothing from this album for being as powerful and relevant as it is. For me, 9/10 and the highest of my recommendations. We don't get rap albums this honest and informed by genuine feeling often enough, and the fact that Sage Francis is such a talented and creative wordsmith really does set it above. And if you're looking for a call to pursue your own path and think for yourself and walk that lonely road, Sage Francis really brings one of the most nuanced, intelligent, and heartfelt tales expressions I've had the pleasure to hear.

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