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Forget the mainstream-underground battle. In hip-hop, success at either end of the spectrum often depends on stereotype and formula. Either rappers get all blingy, or they waste all their time dissing the bling.
Sage Francis is the exception.
Operating outside the mainstream, Francis makes a different kind of poetry one that draws fire even from indie-rap circles. "Hip-hop has changed and become so popular that a lot of people have lost the true mission, which is just to keep bringing fresh material to the table," says Francis, taking a call on a crowded tour van heading south to Florida.
Francis brings fresh material on Human the Death Dance, his third solo disc (not counting a series of compilations and 2003's Hope, a record Francis released under the name Non-Prophets). Released by Epitaph, Human has been declared by some critics to be the apex of the alt-hip-hop/indie-rap tradition. Many longtime followers, however, say its abstract lyrics are hard to follow, while the beats on the second half are too soft. In May, Cleveland Scene writer Ben Westhoff went so far as to write, "Sage Francis is a champion battle rapper, but the dude makes shitty CDs."
Hip-hop was a part-time activity while Francis earned a degree in English from the University of Rhode Island. But his academic background and prowess as a poetry jam gladiator are by no means a weakness; they afford him greater stylistic variety.
Skating freely from spoken word and poetry to rap, Humanfeatures stream-of-consciousness narratives like "Keep Moving," as well as streetwise, rock-box cuts: "And you'll know it was by the trail of demos/Spare the details, e-mails, memos."
But it's not Francis' lyrics that rankle critics the most it's his beats, or lack thereof. "I don't rely on drums and the head-nod factor," he says, separating himself from just about every rapper out there, both mainstream and underground. "Hip-hop has been very drum-heavy for 30 years. It's okay to let the lyrics shine a little more and let the melody shine a little more. And if that's not hip-hop, that's okay."
Despite critics' inability to easily pigeonhole Francis' music, he's only grown steadily more popular since signing to the high-profile indie label Epitaph in 2002. At the time, he represented a wave of white rhymers that Spin labeled "emo rap" because a handful of songs read like diary entries.
Of course, that trend like all trends spawned by pop rags fizzled out in a heartbeat, but Francis has always transcended genre tags anyway. In this sense, Epitaph is the perfect home for the rapper; it's a maverick label dedicated to signing and promoting iconoclastic musicians who defy category.
Still, Francis' music has faced a mind-boggling number of labels. His predominantly white branch of rap has been called "indie rap," "alt-hip-hop," and, of course, "emo rap" (ugh). In his opinion, as he puts it in Human's opener, "Underground for Dummies," his music is "hip-hop for the people" rap for music fans who aren't necessarily feeling Lil Wayne or anything else on MTV's Sucker Free showcase.
Maybe Francis' work is too smart to appeal to a million fans at a time, especially when some of his best songs target the kind of record-collecting music freaks who pack club shows. But that doesn't mean Francis caters to the eggheads. He's at his harshest on "Midgets and Giants," where he lands a haymaker on most of the crowd that might buy his albums, from aspiring rappers to Hot Topic shoppers and MySpace users. Indeed, Sage spits some venom: "8 Mile wasn't true, shithead/It was a promotional tool, but not for you, shithead."
Francis finds harsh words for the ladies and cyber-kibitzers too: "Fake friends got nothing to do with my world/If you ain't dead, you ain't a Suicide Girl." Francis isn't trying to appeal to the masses; he's indicting them. It's happened before in rap.
Alt-hip-hop closely parallels the late '80s/early '90s wave of intelligent rap, in which rhymers openly bragged about being smart, reading a lot, and having superior knowledge of world affairs. Challenging listeners raised consciousness and lowered sales; brainy doesn't always translate to fun, and no indie-rap disc has sold a tenth of what Eminem's albums did. As Francis lamented in the Non-Prophets' "That Ain't Right": "The Africa medallions didn't sell platinum albums/And that's part of the reason you think that hip-hop died."
Sage says contrary to Nas' controversial declaration earlier this year that hip-hop is alive, and so it will remain. He doesn't know what it will sound like, but he thinks a generation of white artists weaned on Yo! MTV Raps and Sucker Free will still be making rap-inspired music when they're 50.
"I think people who are maturing with the art form, we can't be making the same kind of music we loved when we were 18 years old," Francis says. "Hip-hop has to grow up, and we're not rapping about drinking 40s from the liquor store anymore."