Sage Francis
w/Sol.illaquists of Sound, Jared Paul
Sat Feb 26, Showbox, 8 pm, $15, all ages.

"I'm the motherfuckin' Bill O'Reilly of this hiphop shit," cracks Sage Francis on "Ground Control" off his new album, A Healthy Distrust. It's a rare moment of facetiousness on a disc whose title sentiment applies to all political persuasions, belief systems, rappers, and even his own bad self. As he says on "Damage" (off Non-Prophets' Hope), "I'm not left wing or right wing--I'm the middle finger."

Sage Francis could make a living in standup if he ever got sick of "this hiphop shit." His demeanor and thought processes fuse the best traits of comedians Bill Hicks and George Carlin. This Providence, Rhode Island emcee plays with words like $500-an-hour call girls play with genitals. Nearly every line he pens is freighted with double entendres, puns, subverted clichés, and freshly minted catch phrases that should be emblazoned on bumper stickers, T-shirts, and your mind.

Sage's sharply critical, hilariously self-deprecating verses on his 2002 debut, Personal Journals (anticon), reflect the title's preoccupations with identity that have fueled dozens of emo albums. Fortunately, his mind rejects self-pity and melodrama. ("My inner children are runaways," he quips.) Instead, he waxes humorous and perceptive about his status as a skeptical outsider in both hiphop and "real life." "I talk with authority while I question it," Sage raps on "Different," a brilliantly acerbic dissection of his own uniqueness. He boasts and belittles in the same breath--as rare an occurrence as a male emcee bragging about his fellatio skills.

A Healthy Distrust, Sage's debut for punk label Epitaph, broadens his scope to socio-political issues without sacrificing his densely layered narratives, pathos, and dazzling wordplay. The production--handled by Alias, Reanimator, Daddy Kev, Sixtoo, Dangermouse, and others--adds more rock muscle than did Personal Journals, though tough, head-nodding beats abound.

"Slow Down Gandhi" satirizes liberal do-gooders' holier-than-thou attitudes and hypocrisy. "Jah Didn't Kill Johnny," a tender lament for the late Johnny Cash, perfectly parodies Everlast's acoustic-blues earnestness. "Sea Lion," a desolate folk-hop collab with Will Oldham, kind of drags, but it's an interesting if flawed experiment. The Dangermouse-produced "Gunz Yo" deflates the spurious machismo of weapon-glamorizing rappers "dumb enough to hold up a sperm bank."

Does Sage expect to take heat for "Gunz Yo"? "Well, it all depends who is singing that song," he says. "It was written in a way in which the speaker gives the lyrics his/her own meaning. If 50 Cent performed that song, people wouldn't give it a second thought that it's a pro-gun song… one that celebrates the fantastic nature of firepower. Ha ha. No, I don't expect to take a lot of heat from 'Gunz Yo' because I think different people will get different ideas from it, even though most people who know me completely understand that it is sarcastic and/or tongue-in-cheek. Even if it isn't."

It's not surprising to learn that Sage ranks Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back as his biggest hiphop inspiration. In 2004, the music industry organized and agitated for political change with unprecedented energy and passion. And yet, look what happened with our presidency. But, like P.E.'s Chuck D, Sage doesn't plan to mope in his bedroom the next four years.

"We were able to put a man on the moon 40 years ago, but in 2005 we still don't have a trustworthy, fool-proof voting system," Sage grouses. "It's just outrageous. In an effort to combat stuff like this, a friend and I have started a nonprofit organization called www.KnowMore.org, which encourages consumer awareness, and the slogan is 'You vote every time you open your wallet.' The way you spend your money is much more important and effective than what button you push in your little voting booth these days. Bush in office for another four years… I couldn't think of anything better to prompt serious change. I just hope the damage isn't 100-percent undoable once he is dethroned."

Of the thousands of lines Sage has written, he says his favorite is "'Don't waive your rights with your flags.' It was written directly after 9/11 and used as the anchor line in my 'Makeshift Patriot' song. That one line sums up the whole reason I made the song. It was an alert to the public who were so crazy and willing to submit all of their freedom in order to be… free."

segal@thestranger.com

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