Own It or Disown It: #113: Sage Francis, A Healthy Distrust

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With a new Sage Francis album on the horizon, Own It or Disown It looks back at one of his more unusual albums. One might call it “Strange”. Yep.

A Healthy Distrust

It’s that time again. Sage Francis put out a new mixtape the other day to build anticipation for his new album, which we’ll all like well enough but will mitigate our praise with “but it isn’t as good as Personal Journals”. Sage will then make fun of us for comparing the new album to his old albums, make decent money on tour, and then will do mostly nothing for another three or four years. This isn’t cynicism on display, folks, this is pattern recognition, and I’ll be the first to say that Sage probably doesn’t need to make music anymore, or at least make studio albums. He’s the head of an indie hip-hop label and practically the face of intellectual hip-hop—he’ll never be a millionaire, but he’s the last person I expect to go bankrupt anytime soon. Still, there’s a reason why critics types like myself like to compare all of his albums to his first one, and that’s because none of them come close to topping that first effort. A Healthy Distrust remains probably his second-best official solo album, but man, it has its problems.

I heard (or read, I can’t recall) someone refer to A Healthy Distrust as an attempt at making a hip-hop version of The White Album, and it probably plays best if you think of it that way. It certainly goes a long way to explaining the odder moments on the album, particularly the ones in its second half, but the comparison comes from the album’s unrelenting spirit and frequently pairing disparate elements together and expecting the audience to just go along with it. As such, it begins with a sampled-up intro in which a narrator says that “Sage” is trying out new concepts and tools while Sage goes to his well of catchphrases over a bitchin’ Reanimator beat that feels like dude is trying out new concepts and tools. This is followed up by “Sea Lion”, with Alias unleashing his best “thoughtful” piece since “Watching Water” and Sage goes over old concepts in a refreshing way (this version doesn’t include Saul Williams’s exceptional contemplative verse near the end, but I like it enough). What’s the obvious follow-up? Duh—Francis rapping about how guns are like penises while Danger Mouse bores us to death. And the song is called “Gunz Yo”. To Sage’s credit, this was before we all turned the corner on Danger Mouse.

The second half of A Healthy Distrust are where its biggest misses lie. I hesitate to call any of these songs outright horrible, but this feels like a dumping ground for so many different album structures that weren’t committed to. Stuff like “Agony In Her Body”, “Ground Control”, and “Lie Detector Test” come without any sort of effective grounding rod, and after the first half’s numerous bombastic beats, it feels like the album has nowhere to go. “Slow Down Gandhi” feels like an attempt at a centerpiece, but the beat is this staggered thing that runs out of steam long before the track ends and Sage spends most of the song reciting jingoistic sentiments that aim to make liberals like me nod (“Off go the dreadlocks, in comes the income”). It feels like abandoning the identity established with the album’s first half, which makes me wonder if this was a thirty-minute album that Epitaph told Sage, through various winks and nudges, would be easier to move if it had another fifteen minutes on it.

With that said, I can still recommend A Healthy Distrust on the strength of its first half, which also includes bangers like “Escape Artist” and “Sun Vs. Moon”. The production work is interesting throughout, Sage works all of his metaphors for all they’re worth, and enough of these songs work well on their surface that those who aren’t willing to consult a lyrics page will still get quite a bit out of it. It’s just nowhere near as good as Personal Journals. That’s right.

VERDICT: OWN

Who gets married in January? One of my cousins, apparently. I’d say she’s the odd one of the family, but the joke is that she isn’t.

Read past editions of Own It or Disown It

Read past editions of Own It or Disown It.

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