Apparently there's a standing offer of one million dollars from the Clay Mathematics Institute in Boston to anyone who can solve the Poincaré Conjecture, a geometrical problem that has baffled the world's brightest minds for a century. There should probably be a similar reward for anyone who can figure out Sage Francis.
So you think he's simply an introspective "emo-rapper" (as an article in the February issue of Spin typecasts him) because his sensitive, scab-opening 2002 solo album, Personal Journals, revealed more skeletons in his closet than you'd find at the National Museum of Natural History? What, then, to make of Hope -- the latest release from Non-Prophets, his concurrent side project with producer Joe Beats -- which boils over with hard-hitting, venom-spitting, braggadocio battle rhymes?
Francis frequently aims his commanding flow and cunning wordplay squarely at the mainstream; targets include Jay-Z, Nelly, "candy rappers reproducing Tupac covers," and others whose "whole essence is a stocking stuffer." But despite having been affiliated with Anticon (which put out Personal Journals and last year's 9/11-themed, vinyl-only EP Makeshift Patriot) and Lex (the Warp offshoot that's home to Non-Prophets), not to mention being pals and artistic soulmates with the likes of Buck 65 and Atmosphere, he's not even remotely one who champions the underground.
"There isn't much that distinguishes the talent level of indie artists from that of mainstream rappers, except indie artists say what the fuck they want in order to tear down the fantasy while mainstream rappers say what is necessary in order to keep the fantasy alive," he says. "Generally both suck to me. Neither has a fresh approach to anything going on in our lives."
There are more curious contradictions afoot. The Miami-born, Rhode Island-dwelling 25-year-old -- a strict vegetarian who hates booze, drugs, and cigarettes like conservatives abhor Michael Moore -- peppers Hope's tracks with lines like "I attend candlelight vigils for Matthew Shepard while you put out another fuck-you-faggot record" and "Life's not a bitch, she's just sick of being personified." Yet just when you're convinced he's perched on a politically correct ledge, he drops something like this in the name of cubicle jockey liberation: "Stand up, push out your chair, jump on your desk/And if you've got a crush on your co-worker, touch her breasts/And if you hate your boss cause he's a sucker, punch his chest/ Push his wig back with pimp slaps, crush his specs/Kick a hole in his computer, pull the plug and then jet/You're the goddamn man, motherfucker, that's fresh."
Francis is well aware of all these incongruities; he addressed the subject on the Personal Journals track "Different": "I talk with authority while I question it/When I ask, 'Who am I?' I'm left guessing." He believes his fans are particularly drawn to his enigmatic nature. "I think people are intrigued by the inconsistencies," he says. "They don't know what is true anymore. But that reflects the complexities of any human, and I guess that's why they relate to it."
And then there's another interesting paradox currently playing itself out. After years of toiling in virtual obscurity and near-destitution -- distributing his songs on the Internet, burning CD-Rs of his own material, appearing at poetry slams and MC battle competitions, booking his own tours, and working with tiny record labels to get his career off the ground -- Francis recently inked a three-album deal with Epitaph, becoming the first solo rapper signed to the venerable punk rock label. He says he's extremely excited about the promotional and distribution possibilities of the partnership, as he has long coveted the chance to have his music heard far and wide.
So now that he's finally on the verge of a commercial breakthrough, what does Francis go and do? He dubs his current 37-city trek the "Fuck Clear Channel Tour," bypasses all venues owned by the omnipresent media juggernaut, and seizes every opportunity to condemn its business practices. This pretty much guarantees that you'll never hear him on the radio or see him play at any major concert halls, which may, ultimately, stick a fork in the prospects of expanding his modest fan base. Talk about self-sabotage. Did the thought of such consequences give him a moment's pause? Not by a long shot.
"It took me about five seconds to think of the name of this tour when it came time to do so," he says unrepentantly. "I'm taking a serious jab at the conglomerate that most artists in my position would be kissing up to. Over the past five years I have explored this industry inside and out and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that companies like Clear Channel lessen the quality of the common person's life.
"I've been lucky enough to successfully operate outside their realm," Francis continues. "And since I am a self-made artist, I interact with real people who have a genuine interest in music and art. If I smell something fishy along the lines of poor ethics and/or bad business, I will no longer operate with that person or company. The morality of big business is almost nonexistent. That's just the reality we've grown up in, and we are so familiar with the blatant disregard to the common person's well-being that the general public accepts it. There's no outrage. I feel a duty to raise the awareness level to a degree that the general public can start recognizing these things, and then they have to make the decision of whether they should accept conditions as they are or reject them."
Some might scoff at this move; see it as idealistic folly or career suicide. Others will hail it as a triumph of principle over profit. But who knows what will happen as a result? Maybe Francis will be able to retain his integrity and make a decent living from his music, even if stardom proves elusive. Thankfully he saves us the effort of figuring out why the latter isn't on his priority list.
"I don't like people prying into my life whatsoever, so if I sense that happening I will retreat back into the shell. I cherish my privacy, so I will never allow myself to get famous to the point where I am recognized in the porn shop."
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