This close to the end, I tend to get all loopy with my choices of albums to write about, but the subject of today's post has been sitting in my mythical pile of discs for years now. It's difficult to decide what to write about when faced with so much material to choose from, but this current stunt month is as good a time as any to break out the Sage Francis.
Paul Francis, who took the stage name "Sage" after opening a dictionary at random and choosing a word with his eyes covered, is an artist from Providence, Rhode Island. He specializes in a particular sub-genre of hip hop, the one filled with rappers in the underground who express their frustrations in a unique manner, one that differs from the norm, while attempting to relate to the audience that somehow discovered them after running across their name on a hip hop blog. That's how I found the guy, anyway.
Sage Francis started his career by bootlegging his own mixtapes (sorry, they're called "street albums" now), all of which were filled with his many rants set to music. As is the usual with this sort of post, he gained a small following (if he hadn't, I wouldn't be writing about one of his officially released albums, would I?), and he quickly signed a one-off deal with indie label Anticon to record and distribute his debut, Personal Journals, which hit store shelves in 2002.
(Side note: Personal Journals marks the first Anticon album that I've tackled myself on HHID, which means I can finally cross something off of my bucket list. That Reader Review of the Bike For Three album earlier this year doesn't count toward this.)
1. CRACK PIPES
The quick beat at the very beginning is interesting, but in no way a representation of how "Crack Pipes" (or Personal Journals) actually sounds. Sage Francis eschews your typical rap album intro to give the listener two verses that are pretty good by themselves, but also serve as a challenge to the audience: if you like this song, you may like the album, but if you don't like this, you absolutely will hate Personal Journals. I'd be willing to bet that the majority of HHID readers who listen to "Crack Pipes" (which isn't about what you think) shut the album off midway through. For the record, I thought it was alright.
Although I didn't actually use the word in the paragraph above, I fear that many of you two believe that I inferred Sage Francis to be an "experimental" artist. That isn't really the case: he's just "Different", and he uses a pretty good Sixtoo beat to run down all the ways he clashes with his hip hop peers. A lot of this is pretty fucking funny (Sage claims that he is a true underground raper because his "tape quality sucks" and his "CD skips"), but "Different" isn;t a joke-filled song: Sage Francis just exhibits an engaging flow that will make you wish the track were a few verses longer.
3. PERSONAL JOURNALIST
Our host uses two quick verses to run down his own obituary, although if you listen closely, at least one of the lines doubles as an indictment of hip hop itself. (I'll let you two figure out what line, and you can also determine just how much I'm reading into this shit. It's been a long month, folks.) Sage Francis isn't concerned with starting fights, though: he delivers his thoughts (over a guitar-flavored Mayonnaise instrumental) and moves the fuck on to the next one.
4. INHERITED SCARS
Typical underground rap song from an artist who crams as many syllables as possible into every bar. Performance-wise, this isn't new: our host has been doing that shit all along. But "Inherited Scars" is the first song on Personal Journals that I just flat-out did not like. The Mayonnaise instrumental, which mixes a breakbeat with a jazzy horn sample and expects them to get along, is fucking weak, and the lyrics suffer more than they usually would as a result. This song just does not work. Sue me.
5. CLIMB TREES
Anticon released "Climb Trees" as the only single from Personal Journals, and I'm convinced they did this as an elaborate practical joke, as there is no fucking way that this song would have generated interest in anybody except a person who already had the album in their hands while walking to the cash register. For what it is, though, it's pretty good: the lyrics are all over the place, but flow much better than on "Inherited Scars" (Sage's own form of shit-talking serves him well), and Jel's beat actually bangs, thanks to some additional flourishes layered around the hard-hitting drums. You two may like this one.
6. BROKEN WINGS
You know, you run a hip hop blog centered around album reviews hoping for the day that you discover that someone has had the audacity to cover Mr. Mister's "Broken Wings", and that day never fucking comes, and you're disappointed every goddamn time. (2Pac's posthumous "Until The End Of Time" doesn't count: that was just a sample, and a lame one at that.) Anyway, I liked Sage's two verses and the imagery placed within (the song's basically about love, although you may have to listen to it a few times before it clicks, thanks to all the talk about fairies not having functional flying apparatuses and all), but the winner of the day is Scott Matelic, whose beat rocks. Kudos on the restraint shown during the final minute, too: you keep waiting for the drums to return, but they never do, leaving you to feel melancholy for the rest of the day.
7. THE STRANGE FAMOUS MULLET REMOVER
Lest you feel too sad about the previous track, Sage Francis tries to lift your spirits with what is essentially an interlude. One with a goofy-as-fuck title, too.
8. SMOKE AND MIRRORS
I think the titular "Smoke and Mirrors" are what Sage Francis hides behind on this track, as he doesn't want the listener to discover that this entire track is a glorified nonsensical freestyle session (with an Ol' Dirty Bastard vocal sample thrown in for the hell of it). It's not exactly a bad song, but there is very little to it, and as such, not a whole lot to recommend it with.
9. MESSAGE SENT
After a brief interlude comes meh.
10. EVICTION NOTICE
It's probably not a good sign when the artist has to constantly explain what this song is actually about: that means the extended metaphor isn't very clear or concise. As expected, "Eviction Notice" is kind of a mess, in a half-brilliant, half-bullshit kind of way. It's a decent idea, writing a song about the many addictions that can riddle a life, but Sage Francis sucks at his execution on here. Oh well.
11. PITCHERS OF SILENCE
Helps right the Personal Journals ship. Over a really fucking good Sixtoo instrumental (it had to grow on me, but that happened quickly enough), Sage rattles off a one-verse wonder that sounds like braggadocio, but wears its heart on its sleeve, if verses ever wore clothing. His depressing version of Bon Jovi's "You Give Love A Bad Name" at the end notwithstanding, I dug this one a lot.
I liked the Controller 7 beat, but Sage's lyrics are all nonlinear similes and metaphors that sound clever but really aren't. (The act of bleeding "off beat" does not exist, motherfucker, nor does it actually mean anything.) Sage's relationship woes make for good fodder for a rap song, but "Specialist" is the first track on Personal Journals that sounds so much like fucking hipster bait that it's probably wearing skinny jeans and hasn't washed its hair in three weeks.
Actual spoken word poetry? Without musical accompaniment? Next!
14. KILL YA' MOMZ
Another goofy interlude, along the same lines as "The Strange Famous Mullet Remover". You probably won't listen to this more than once, although you may smirk at the De La Soul riff toward the end.
15. BLACK SWEATSHIRT
Purports to be a song about an article of clothing, but actually runs much deeper, into the darker fears and insecurities that hide in your mind until the worst possible moment. That's an overly dramatic way to describe this one-verse wonder, but the production is just that, overly dramatic. Thankfully, our host is up to the task, as well. Not bad.
16. CUP OF TEA
Continues the darker theme introduced on...well, the entire goddamn album is pretty dark, isn't it? I liked Sixtoo's instrumental quite a bit (that appears to be a running theme on Personal Journals), much more so that our host's actual lyrics, although he sounded okay, surprisingly sticking with the "Cup of Tea" metaphor throughout the song's running time. Not quite as good as "Black Sweatshirt", but still decent.
17. MY NAME IS STRANGE
Hilariously for me, "My Name Is Strange" marks the second Bob Seger reference I get to make during this stunt blogging month, as Sage delivers his own version of "Turn The Page" to the listener (and in front of a live audience, where this track was recorded). The end result would have made for a better interlude than an actual song, but such is life.
I would love to hear a rap album end on a track that focuses solely on shit-talking, as the artist's subtle was of acknowledging that they aren't going anywhere. That doesn't happen all that often in our chosen genre, and it definitely does not happen on Personal Journals. The Joe Beats production isn't very sticky, but it suits Sage's need to be more serious just fine. The track concludes on an extended outro that signifies the end of the album, just as it should.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Sage Francis's debut full-length album Personal Journals is dense, but still highly enjoyable. He has a tendency to lapse into what is essentially gussied-up spoken word poetry at times, but for the most part, he sticks with the script, which he wrote and had final say in, and his songs are that much better for it. His delivery is unique not just in how the words are delivered, but in how he can cram in so many jokes and observations into a verse that you will have to listen to multiple times to understand, and yet nearly every song can be considered accessible to a general audience, one who has never heard of Sage Francis. It helps tremendously that he aligns himself with some really good producers, particularly Sixtoo, who meet him halfway and transform his sometimes-random musings into workable songs fit for consumption. Personal Journals holds up well today as a debut from an artist who will never see the mainstream unless he's watching someone else's performance on television, but Sage Francis holds his own in a crowded marketplace with a project that deserves to be heard.
BUY OR BURN? If you're into the complete opposite of yesterday's Miilkbone review, I think you should give Sage Francis a shot. He's an acquired taste, but then again, so is hip hop in general.
BEST TRACKS: "Different"; "Pitchers Of Silence"; "Black Sweatshirt" "Broken Wings"; "Climb Trees"