Sage Francis is ready for the rap backlash

New on CD

February 17, 2005|By Steve Hochman | Steve Hochman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

It's cheeky of the Rhode Island rapper Sage Francis to start this album with a track titled "The Buzz Kill." After all, it's his own buzz that's on the line with his first album with a high enough profile to test his stature as leader of the new rap underground. It's as if he's saying he knows the backlash is coming - but that he's confident that he can beat it.

The confidence is justified. A Healthy Distrust is at once stern and playful, wildly scattered and yet sharply honed by the artist's sheer will and reach. Recalling such '80s standard-bearers as Public Enemy and KRS-One, he laments rap's recent bling-blindness and mocks the knee-jerk rhetoric driving political dialogue. His wordy lyrics twist and turn down seemingly blind alleys before cohering into complex and compelling images that include a fanciful account of a celestial DJ battle, "Sun Vs. Moon."

But this suburban product never affects black or urban postures. He quotes Bob Dylan and Neil Young in the liner notes, and the album closes with a sloppy, spirited tribute to Johnny Cash. The triumph may be "Sea Lion," a collaboration with alt-country hero Will Oldham, whose downcast vocals accent Francis' harsh soliloquy of self-doubt.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Sage Francis

A Healthy Distrust (Epitaph) *** 1/2

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