If underground rapper Sage Francis seemed unfocused before, he's found his direction. And if there was any doubt to his talent, whether that be as a rapper, lyricist or entertainer, it'll pretty much be shot down by A Healthy Distrust
Elements of Francis's previous work inform A Healthy Distrust. Whether it's working with underground producers -- Dangermouse, Alias, Just Beats, Sixtoo -- or employing spoken word breakdowns, or remaining adamantly frustrated and self-deprecating, he's still a strange fruit with a tough exterior. He calls out "radio suckers" who are "scared shitless of dismissing Clear Channel playlists" on "The Buzz Kill", Distrust's radiant opener. Ever the independent, red-state-baiting agitator, he should fit in nicely with Epitaph's punk roster.
A Healthy Distrust is impressively fluid; Francis fuses his experimental leanings and newer mainstream hip-hop allowances with ease. A highly effective cameo by folk hero and Dr. Dre protege (not!) Will Oldham lends an acoustic guitar and desert-island sorrow to "Sea Lion". Francis replies in kind with lyrics about building yourself up from humble beginnings; he definitively declares, "I built this suit of armor with wooden arms," both a testament to his strength and an admission of vulnerability. Directly following is "Gunz Yo", a likely single and one of his most mainstream tracks to date. Even amid familiar territory of gun violence -- complete with bullet-firing sound effects -- Francis's lyrics are daring, to say the least, portraying a "homophobic rapper unaware of the graphic nature of phallic symbols / Tragically ironic, sucking off each other's gats and pistols."
Francis doesn't seem bent on pleasing anyone in particular, but he ensures that no-one will deny his expertise in the future. "Escape Artist" begins with typically weird verses about magic and David Blaine, but it suddenly becomes a showcase for his MC skills, peeling the paint back and scattering papers as he flies by at a mindbending pace. His articulation is occasionally awkward, as at the song's end, when he repeatedly enunciates "escape artist", but it actually helps us to understand his substantive, high-speed rhymes.
Distrust's production is mercurial and exciting. The best beats come from Alias, who gives "Product Placement" a shade of dream-washed synthesized harp. "Dance Monkey" gets a caffeine-rush of a chorus -- aggressive beats backing a pre-pubescent voice screaming "dance, monkey!" -- courtesy of producer Daddy Kev. The songs aren't exactly loaded with catchiness, but as Francis so eloquently puts it, "the worm doesn't need the hook to dance." Sage Francis knows what he's doing, whether it's calling God a bitch or giving his audience respect for telling him to shut the fuck up. He indulges every lyrical whim and exposes himself freely, warts and all. If that makes Francis "emo-rap", then so be it. However indulgent his rhymes are, they'll burn themselves into your memory.