Sage Francis – Li(f)e – 4.5/5
If you thought I was done with this particular hip-hop artist then you can think again; returning years later with another monumental release, changing his style but retaining the intelligence to reveal an entirely different side to his personality. In fact, I'm not entirely sure I can really call this hop-hop any more – a fact that is sure to anger a lot of his fans – his apparent disregard for the scene manifesting as he distances himself from the genre he once found his footing. Instead its a weird mix of styles and genres, experimental to say the least, taking a step back from his more aggressive style and venturing further into the world of spoken art poetry, devoting much of his time towards religion. As the album suggests, the motif on display is how much of his life was a lie and naturally religion plays it's role in that, but more than that it's an introspective reflection on his own life and how certain events changed his views, looking back retrospectively on how it resulted in who he is. As he said himself, “If it wasn't for mistakes, I probably wouldn't be here today.”
Rap, is in a sense poetry, but his displays of technical ability take a back seat as he states his case, carefully making sure that every word is able to sink in. His use of metaphors, too, have been toned down and drawn back, at times feeling as though he's holding his tongue and presenting a case for the audience to decide, though invariably his own thoughts on the matter still uncontrollably seep through. Speaking in a manner that could almost be seen as condescending given his past repertoire - talking down to the 'lay man' - it works by virtue of that fact that really he just wants to tell a story and make sure everyone can understand it. It's a situation he can't really win; speak in tongues and come off pretentious and arrogant, or simplify his words and come across condescending. Given the two options I'd have said he chose the lesser of two evils, but this is far from the largest change that this album sees - oh no - his use of backing tracks is what really sets this album apart.
Working with musicians ranging from the atmospheric Avant-Garde multi-instrumentalist Yann Tiersen to Chris Walla (guitarist for “Deathcab for Cutie), the notion of the usual 'simple back beat' has gone out the window of the top floor of a skyscraper, now lying obliterated on the concrete floor. It's a bold move but one that has its pay off and goes a long way to making this such a memorable release, but doing such an act is fraught with perils which he hasn't quite managed to avoid. The fundamental difference hip-hop has from many other genres is the lyrical focus; when tracks such as 'Little Houdini' and it's country backing, or Yann Tiersen's work in 'Best of Times,' arrive it manages to pull off such a success that you can't help but wonder why so few have followed suit, the styles compatible to the point that it can greatly add to the atmosphere without removing emphasis on the actual words being spoken. Whether you're hanging onto every word or listening to it in the background, the emotion the twinned aspects create is above and beyond the capabilities of either one left bare.
The difficulties invariably arise when everything slows down and leaves the work feeling bare and incomplete by comparison, or worse still is when a more intensive indie rock style is chosen, demanding more attention to the instrumentation. The production work forces a battle for domination; the two aspects fighting each other; the ever more upbeat and rapidly spoken lines not quite far enough in the forefront left to duel the rocking beat rather than working together in a battle that, whilst working wonders for some artists, sometimes sees both aspects ultimately coming off as the loser. It is in these tracks the listeners ability to divide their attention and absorb both sides to the coin really comes to the fray and is ultimately the determining factor in how successfully the track achieves its goal. For the most part he handles this distinction remarkably well with just a few sub-par tracks bringing it down, but an appreciation for both sides of his new sound are required to get the most out of this. Short of that, this is going to be disappointing a ride for those expecting a continuation of his previous work, but if you're up for the challenge then Sage Francis has created nothing less than some of the best the genre has to offer.
Highlights: Little Houdini, Diamonds and Pearls, The Best of Times