Sage Francis

There's no denying Sage Francis's passion -- for hip-hop, for speaking truth, for expression itself. Nothing changes with Human the Death Dance, but where 2005's A Healthy Distrust dealt chiefly with today's dire sociopolitical landscape, here Sage looks inside to tackle all things personal.

As always, he's most effective when getting a little help from friends -- whether it's Jolie Holland's alternately twangy and ethereal choruses (illuminating just how atonal Sage's own yelps really are) or Bryan Lewis Saunders's haunting, poetic bookends. He maintains his fetish for playing with vocal inner-melodies and flow variations, risks sounding more spoken-word than boom-bap, and sticks to a militant flow polarizing enough to make you either a diehard fan or a vicious hater.

Topics on Human are as far-ranging as childhood and death, and the beats are just dynamic enough to keep the thematic intensity tolerable. The numerous "love" songs are eclectically constructed narratives full of quirks and cryptic metaphors, which is damn sure more interesting than your typical rap approaches to relationships. Sage's more literate and relentlessly painful confessions might even beat out Slug's (sacrilege!), not for emotional immediacy, but ultimate poignancy. Plus rap-scene-indicting "Midgets and Giants" has a chanted chorus -- "You are really not all that dope" -- that's a perfectly succinct rebuff of the current mainstream manifesto "This is why I'm hot." Take that, shorty. -- Jordan Selbo

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Jordan Selbo