Back in school, teachers used to tell us “not to colour outside the lines, or God’ll send you to hell.” And just like agnostic rapper Sage Francis, we questioned that. How and why would some deity send you to hell for breaking man-made rules? We never got an answer. But after listening to Sage’s latest single ‘The Best Of Times’, memories of rotans and our favourite Cikgu Agama came back uninvited.
To quote Robert G. Ingersoll, “You are going around trying to keep people out of hell, and I am going around trying to keep hell out of people.” Well, Sage Francis might just be the incarnation of the 19th Century intellectual agnostic and protector of free-speech.
An underground star from his years as a battle champion, poet and founder of influential Strange Famous Records, Sage garnered even wider acclaim with his incendiary 2005 release A Healthy Distrust, a timely condemnation of corporate greed, war-mongering and American complacency.Â On his electrifying new album Li(f)e, the agent-provocateur of hip hop turns his keen observational skills to a culture of rampant hypocrisy and, in particular, organised religion.
This album is a marked evolution for Sage. His signature wordplay, a dazzling mix of sardonic humor and biting social commentary, is now complimented by a talented band consisting of producer Brian Deck (Modest Mouse, Iron and Wine) and cohorts Jim Becker and Tim Rutili of the acclaimed Chicago outfit Califone. It proves an effective soundtrack for Sage’s riveting lyrical discourse. The record’s title Li(f)e is a deliberate amalgamation of the words life and lie. As Sage says, “What about life is a lie? What we’re told about God is a lie. What we’re told about race, gender roles, beauty, war, food, drugs, sexuality, capitalism, history, the nature of humankind…a gang of lies. I feel it in my gut, I think it in my brain, I write it with my hands and I speak it with my mouth. That’s what makes Li(f)e the general theme of this album.”
To help convey his impassioned message Sage has enlisted a cadre of uniquely talented songwriters. The album begins with a stirring Steinbeck imbued tale of prison break entitled ‘Little Houdini’ with music written by ex Grandaddy frontman turned solo artist Jason Lytle. “We specifically sought out songwriters who had never worked with a rapper,” Sage explains. “And I didn’t want them to write music they thought they should for hip hop. The music for ‘Little Houdini’ was a long epic instrumental piece Jason had just hanging around which I then worked my story into.” Next up is a rousing and energetic anthem entitled ‘Three Sheets’ with music written by Chris Walla of the band Death Cab for Cutie. Subsequent songs feature compositions by Tim Fite, members of Calexico, DeVotchKa, and the late-Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse – each interpreted by Sage and the band resulting in an entirely organic and captivating vehicle for Sage’s dramatic narratives.
Li(f)e is a thought provoking and unabashedly original album from an evolving artist with a refreshingly distinctive voice. And God knows, we need it now.