Candidates for top 10 albums of 2002: Sage Francis - Personal Journals
Sage Francis makes Atmosphere look like the Cash Money Millionaires. He’s a focused but flamboyant foil to regular rap music and culture. But he doesn’t dispose of conventions, he categorically counteracts them: instead of rapping about selling drugs, smashing hoes, or rocking gold chains, Sage exclaims (but doesn’t preach) that he’s straight-edge, vegan, and is practically broke; instead of concrete beats behind rhythmically cemented and metrically accented vocal cadences, Sage employs jazz and rock infused loops to match his sing-songy spoken-word style of rap. His voice pulses over the humble but atypical production and is paced by packing or expanding iambically extended phrases of raw but boiling emotion.
An ascetic analysis of his words might convince you that Sage is anti-social. But the irony of releasing a record called Personal Journals is obvious and exaggerated by his disgusting flow. I don’t just mean that as a euphemism for sick. It’s awkward, verbose, and aggressive. When Sage spits, it’s like an eight year old is sneezing on you; when he opens his mouth and unembarrassedly hurls his inner chemistry all over you, he’s breaking societal conventions, but mostly you want to know more about him (like who the hell his parents are.) His flow is designed in every way to make you wriggle and squirm uncomfortably and then think, ‘but damn he’s articulate tho.’ (Almost like a prouder or more pretentious version of “The Real Slim Shady”: “’Chicka chicka chicka Slim Shady I’m sick of him. Look at him, walkin’ around grabbin’ his you-know-what, flippin’ the you-know-who.’ ‘Yeah, but he’s so cute though!’”)
“Different” sums Sage up. It’s a heady, introspective, and self-referential ramble that conjures clichés just to contort them, just as Sage does to rap in general.
I talk with authority while I question it, when I ask, ‘Who am I?’ I’m left guessing
But if you’re a poor man’s version of anything it’s your self-perception
And, more to the point,
I’m a real vegetarian; no chicken, not even fish
I’m a real underground rapper; my tape quality sucks, my records are warped and my CD skips…
…As long as I’ve been rhyming, they only started listening
’Cause for a while they didn’t like how I wouldn’t smoke the pot that I was pissin’ in
And I had no dead homies to honor while pouring out the liquor I don’t drink
You can flash all your shiny objects in front of my eyes and I won’t blink
The beats might not be as dense as the lyrics but they’re equally runny. (As in the purposeful fluidity of eggs over-easy.) Ultimately, they match. The production on “Crack Pipes” reminds me of the experimental stages of lo-fi tape loops on “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles. In another example of reworking hip hop staples, Personal Journals is full of horn samples. But they’re not just punch-phrasing to punctuate the production; they’re full phrases that evoke various moods throughout the album.
Last spring, when I introduced a bunch of NYC high schoolers to hip hop they’d never heard before, Sage Francis surfaced as the artist they were most excited to discover (out of a list that included early Eminem, Eric B. & Rakim, Blackalicious, and Gang Starr, among others) but a general consensus emerged that this wasn’t really really real rap.
For better or worse, Sage falls (if roughly) into the awkward and unspecific category of “white” rap that I referenced in my review of Atmosphere’s God Loves Ugly. His flow may not be as tight as Slug’s but his word-play rivals Eminem’s and his self-analysis is as intimately uncomfortable as both. While his enunciation and cunning tongue owe homage to Slim Shady, Sage’s content is much more pretentious and self-deflating. Personal Journals might be the best defense-mechanism ever made. He takes the ‘I’m going to diss myself so comprehensively that you won’t have shit to say about me’ idea from 8 Mile—also from 2002—and adds, ‘plus I have a bigger vocabulary and dense metaphors that’ll take you days to unpack.’ He layers similes and absurdities so densely that his lyricism can more accurately be compared to the first-ever white-rapper, Bob Dylan.
The first few songs on the record are through-composed and flow into each other more smoothly than they stand alone. Like the songs themselves, his “lines” often bleed onto each other and meander over multiple measures and metaphors before landing squarely on a pun or a punch-line. “Crack Pipes” itself is a pun and a metaphor. So are some of his many beforeandafters. (In the title track, he uses both “avant garden of Edan” and “avant guardian angel.”) But Sage is at his lyrical best when he’s exploiting the element he owns, spoken-word poetry.
It’s hopelessness holding this openness to blow a kiss so close your lips but don’t get pissed and throw a fist at this vocalist.
I’m not emotionless, in fact I broke my wrist when I wrote the list of all those I miss.
This is my poker face, Mr. Feel Nothing
The track “Hopeless”, which sounds like it was lifted from a live poetry reading, is the lyrical highlight of a record that has plenty of candidates. It also confirms our feeling that this whole picture he’s painted by impressing us with his imperfections is ultimately a distraction from something else; despite being completely unembarrassed to lay his whole soul out for us to devour, he apparently still feels inadequate in his ability to express his emotions appropriately in a social context.
Bob Dylan (who Sage references on a later song, “Hey Bobby”—a response to Dylan’s “Master’s of War”) famously wrote a song for his wife Sara (“Sara”) in which he insists that he “Stay[ed] up for days in the Chelsea Hotel Writing ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for” her. In other words, he writes a song about her to tell her he wrote a song about her. Clearly there are communication issues. He seems to be saying something like, ‘look, maybe I don’t express my emotions well in the conventional sense but you should feel honored that I’m using the one thing I’m great at to honor you, because even though other people will pour over my words, you’re the one I’m writing for.’ (They got divorced the year after the song came out.)
It’s bizarre that those who can articulate their emotions through poetry better than most of us can in any medium could lack an ability to connect emotionally in real life. When us normal folk have that feeling, we can invoke their words in place of our own. So, thanks guys. Emotional torment is part of what we pay you for, right? But, even though Sage “paid [his] dues while the cost was climbing,” he droppedthis album at the height of the download-and-burn phase—just as we were getting high-speed internet but before buying music on iTunes was around—and probably didn’t get paid all that much for his Personal Journals.
Unfortunately, Sage includes a sloppy parody of the Metallica cover version of “Turn the Page” that contains only a few not-that-clever lyric-changes (including the wordy retitling “My Name is Strange”) and totally ruins the intimate tone of an otherwise awesome record. It’s the one song on the album that ostensibly doesn’t use samples and it references a cover (essentially a song-length sample) by a band adamant about blocking piracy. (A little before this, Metallica had been fearlessly at the forefront of an industry battle against Napster, alienating some fans and hopefully marking the only time they team up with Dr. Dre—one of the best things about 2002 was that Metallica wasn’t anywhere near working with Lou Reed yet.) But I don’t think that’s the statement Sage was going for by including it. I’m not sure, but I think he wanted to come off closer to Woody Allen (who’s introspective but doesn’t take himself too seriously) than Death Cab for Cutie (all sad and pathetic) so he added one track that completely sucks to show that, even though he’s a sensitive dude, he knows that nothing really matters and ultimately doesn’t give a fuck how his art is perceived.
In the years ahead, after carving an original niche here, Sage would surround himself with conceptually similar but inferior artists and get sucked into the already over-saturated indie echo-chamber, ultimately working with Chris Walla of Death Cab (among others) to release an indie-rap/rock record, Li(f)e, in 2010. (Its actually not a bad record but its also not nearly as inspired as this earlier stuff.)
A few days ago, I heard a new track by the Black Keys and RZA. It looks like rock and rap are starting to consistently overlap again, something that looked like a thing of the past, as of 2002. Both genres returned to fundamentals in a big way that year. (See my other reviews of records from 2002 and my forthcoming “best of” list.) In fact, maybe the one thing Sage Francis is doing most passionately on Personal Journals is distancing himself from the likes of Limp Bizkit (who—by the way—recently signed to Cash Money Records.)
Pardon me but is that me wearing my hard-on on my sleeve?
With razor sharp teeth gnawing at my wrist how beautiful is this?
The most beautifullest thing in the world
Is making up words when I have none else left to say to a girl
Making her curl up in a ball in a corner of my eye
Taking a time out I don’t want her to cry
I don’t ever want to be considered the sort of guy
Who says, ‘I just might break your face tonight’