There's an unspoken rule in underground (and surface dwelling) hip hop, that you need to be a certain kind of messed up to create art that is meaningful enough to have the college kids stroke their beard and nod along. If you aren't, then you need to have superhuman abilities on the microphone. Sage Francis has a toe in both categories. There's something slightly special when someone who could've been lecturing you on political science in university is born with the ability to grace the stage and lay wisdom over beats. Discovering someone like Sage is a serendipitious moment. He's not the man for every type of weather, but his brand of outspoken rebellion matches up with diamond-plated examples like Killer Mike and Mos Def, and his expressed self flagellation is performed with both irony and fervour, in equal amounts.
Being a genius, his mind tends to hop around as if on hot coals. His most coherent release, 2007's Human The Death Dance, gave him a genuine pariah on which to base his potent mouth on, attacking all and sundry related to Mr Bush's presidential reign. His best work has been completed in sharp bursts with clear focus. When he appeared on the (utterly brilliant) Canada Project by Sixtoo, he ghosted in like a sniper, throwing hands and feet at anything that moved, then departed the beat, causing great concern for whoever had to follow him on the microphone. So, talented then.
To understand Copper Gone, we first must understand the environment it was raised in. At the end of his touring of Li[f]e in 2010, Francis announced a cessation of touring. What this actually set in effect was a gradual withdrawal from the world, enhanced greatly by several personal tragedies that befell him and those around him. For a man that was so outspoken politically, someone who managed to weave up to the minute cultural references in to each of his songs, this gave an entirely new perspective on the project Copper Gone. No longer bound by a major label deal, he was free to roam around inside his own mind, and what he finds is confronting and difficult to hear.
The stunning Make Em Purr, produced by the master of emotion Buck 65, gives the most autobiographical account of where the man is at. Francis revisits his self-analysing youth in an entirely more disarming manner. 'I was a lot more comfortable being vulnerable and open / When I was younger it wasn't clear if I was or wasn't joking'. There's little doubt that on Copper Gone, he is deadly serious, and phrases that once may have been cast off's, 'You've been padding your resume / while I've been rhyming about life like I'm rapping my death away' now take on a new meaning. There's soul afoot, and it certainly isn't clean or pure.
Of course it wouldn't be a Sage record without some attempt at humour, although in this case most of it is quite dark and furtive. On Grace, he slops through the opposite of Eminem's Drug Ballad, before aiming his six shooting tongue directly at the establishment he deems guilty of his predicament, 'If I kill your persecution complex that don't make you a martyr / Drop the styrofoam cross, you can't walk on water'. His clowning remains sinister throughout, 'She called me on Christmas, that was my gift / she was worried I might die, I said 'Might die? No shit!'. There's nothing scarier than a comic in the throws of depressive episodes, but Sage still manages to flip his lyrics so adeptly you're smiling as you dial 911 and report he may be a danger to himself, 'Suicidal watch it's diamond studded / Tells me when my time's up, trying to keep my eyes from it / It's so swag, I flash it at the fashion shows / Walks with a limp, it's so pimp and it smacks the hoes'.
As you descend further in to the listening experience his advice on track 4, Cheat Code, becomes clearer and clearer; 'Don't expect resolutions just cause every movie has em'. On Grace his desperation as he considers taking Lithium to correct his chemical imbalance is an ominous sign and it gets no better than that. In an interview with Jonk Music this year he stated that when he is working on an album, nothing can stop him, and he stops taking visitors because he refuses to let anyone see his work lest they influence it in some way. What flowers from this is a man forced to sit back and take stock of his own headspace. The Place She Feared Most turns in to an internal dialogue between Sage and what could be the rest of the world looking in on him, debasing his own self worth relentlessly via imagined evidence. Dead Man's Float even has him flirting briefly with religious saviour, before he intellectually dissects that and shatters it 'But faith couldn't even move low-income families away from / Biblical floods when they were all drowning'.
There are encouraging signs from Sage though. He constantly reverts back to his hulk-like ability with words, raining down lyrical hammer blows whenever his mind runs off on a tangent. On Vonnegut Busy he just plays around, 'For what it's worth I'm richer than cemetary soil / I use slant drilling to get my midnight oil'. At the end of ID Thieves he is roused in to action almost through a cathartic strain of conscious thought, ending the track with a chilling challenge, 'Why you think I let you get away with doing radio-friendly versions of what I do?' before body slamming them. It's this sign of life, this fight, that sustains hope throughout Copper Gone. Rather than being a Trent Reznor hate-fest, or an Eminem admission of guilt, Sage still has that fire burning within him, and whilst that hope is clearly alight you have hope for his mental state.
What is helpful is that sonically this is the strongest Sage release ever. With production from Buck 65, Anders Parker, James Handock, Le Parasite and long timers Alias and Cecil Otter, Copper Gone has the bark to match the bite. Lead single Vonnegut Busy is an anxious boom bap New York classic, providing the perfect canvas for some lyrical acrobatics. Buck 65's entries are theatrical and complimentary, and tracks like The Set Up and Pressure Cooker provide much needed thump. The tendency with projects like this can be to pluck obscure producers out of the air who provide 'artistic', self-serving beats that don't match the fight and fire of the emcee. Francis has never been one to pander to ponce, which ensure a healthy amount of knob turning when you're in the car, in the gym or just sitting in your room wanting to piss your parents off.
'If you're going through hell, keep going'. Sage Francis is a genius, and it's difficult to picture him sitting there in his studio, alone, yelling in to the mic with this much energy and aggression without feeling some form of hope. He is stupidly talented, and for anyone struggling through similar circumstances this record will hit you straight between the eyes, it's evocative and illustrative of how hard it is to battle the inner demons when they get a foothold. But he is still battling. This would be an instant classic if he could keep his mouth on track for an entire LP. Either way, there's enough quoteable lines on here to keep rapgenius contributors busy for the rest of the year.