(Where have you beeen!?)
Get-get-get off my nuts
I’ve been busy, busy, doing stuff, Copper Gone
I had to take a minute to get my shit together
Otherwise I was finished, Sage Francis
No need for me to tell ’em, I tried to keep from yellin’
But I’m steady representin’ Strange Famous
And slow and steady wins the race, fuckface
Sage Francis has been one of the most consistent and lyrically sophisticated MCs on the indie rap scene since before he started peddling his first mixtape in ’99. He honed his chops as a lyricist doing Slam and spoken word in Providence, and brings an unusually sharp wit to self-deprecation and confessional verses not often encountered in hip hop. It’s been four years since the his last album, not even a mixtape until this past December, so I understand why Copper Gone is kicked off where the ‘where’ve you been’ jam. This opening hook doesn’t initially inspire much confidence, but Sage is good enough that even occasionally silly lines like these can be overlooked.
Sage has always been an odd man out, and has pursued a disciplined DIY approach ever since his first mixtape Sick of Waiting. After 9/11 his track “makeshift patriot” brought Sage to the attention of new listeners, and he joined punk label Epitaph Records’ ANTI imprint for three records, the last of which was 2010’s Li(f)e. Epitaph had previously released records from occasional collaborators Atmosphere, the Minneapolis indie hip hop duo. At times Sage explores country folk and rock instrumentation, but much of his production style resonates well with that Minneapolis sound. His label Strange Famous has gotten increasingly busy with releases from longtime collaborators (and fellow bearded white men) B. Dolan, Buck 65, Reanimator, and Cecil Otter, all of whom contribute production to Copper Gone.
Sage’s best lines only get better the more they sit with you. Sage Francis is a deeply thought provoking lyricist, enough that even a song about his cat comes off as too sincere to dismiss, especially when Its followed with a classic braggadocio of a song like “Cheat Codes,” with a beat that locks in, takes a left turn and manages to rides it out. Sage can hold his own on both the freestyle and poetry circuits, and he’s not shy about showing off occasionally. “Thank You” is powerful in its sincerity, and the vulnerability of “Say Uncle” feels timely. In case the first track had you skeptical, Sage immediately reassures with “Over Under,” a kind of country trap beat with a violin. Sage runs fluid verses as precise as the high hats and snares. For Sage it’s an opportunity to show off, making the hipster trap fans using reappropriation of the week to pick up chicks look lazy by omission.
Copper Gone may have some really strong stand out tracks, but it has just as many that leave me flat. To quote Common, “Though some of that shit y’all pop true it, I ain’t relating/ If I don’t like it, I don’t like it, that don’t mean that I’m hating.” When a song veers to close to a kind of rap-rock territory, I find that the rock beat and instrumentation doesn’t bring out the Sage that I like to here. When The Roots do it- with that BOOM-bap! – it works, but here it is referencing a very different kind of music with a different emotional resonance, and the result feels immature.
But I’m sure many of his fans prefer those tracks to those I dig, which is why Sage has done so well as a mixtape artist. Despite being collections of singles, live tracks, freestyles, demos and interludes, Sage’s music benefits from being mixed and matched based on your preference. The mixtapes are more like journals, a fuller documentation of Sage Francis as an artist. Like a punk band, the demos always have more force than the overwrought studio tracks.
I found his latest mixtape, Sick to D(eat)h, to be more enjoyable than Copper Gone. “Viva La Vinyl” is a beautiful ode to a format, and I don’t even mind the irony of vinyl hiss on an mp3 as Sage underscores music as an experience inextricable from the material concerns of the world around us. Tracks like “Breaking 2Bad” draws allusions speaking through popular culture, in this case opening with a sample from RZA’s “Ice Cream” and sampling Breaking Bad.
Respect to Sage Francis for still writing sophisticated and honest music grappling with the political and moral complexities of our daily lives. The stories he tells are all the more compelling because of his vulnerability. Part of that means being open to new things, and for that I’m happy to skip over a few tracks if it keeps Sage Francis’ voice in the game.