Sage Francis’s relationship with hip-hop has always been a love-hate thing. When he won 2000’s prestigious Scribble Jam rap battle, for instance, he did it wearing a Metallica T-shirt. Well before such a collision of musical tastes became fashionable, the Rhode Island native was already rejecting rappers’ stereotypical dress code and behavioural tics. With his horn-rimmed glasses, shaggy beard, and 300-pound frame, Francis understands that there’s a lot more to being a great MC than just looking the part.
“I still think I’m a rapper’s rapper,” says Francis, reached on tour in Detroit. “In my songs, I always like leaving these Easter eggs—whether it’s subtle rhyme schemes or certain references—that you’d almost have to be a rapper or a writer to pick up.”
Over the past five or so years, Francis has been distancing himself from straight-up rap, seeking out a new genre of his own. A Healthy Distrust, his 2005 album—and first for the pioneering punk label Epitaph—was notable for its inclusion of “Sea Lion”, his collaboration with the indie folkie Will Oldham. With its eerie acoustic-guitar licks and the singer’s warbling chorus, “Sea Lion” provided a template of sorts for this year’s Li(f)e, Francis’s album-length exploration of what might best be called cinematic folk-rap.
“This is the album I wanted to make when I initially signed with Epitaph,” says the rapper. “It just took us a while to get around to it.”
Francis solicited backing tracks from several high-profile indie musicians, including Califone’s Tim Rutili, Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla, and the late Mark Linkous (of Sparklehorse). Producer Brian Deck (Modest Mouse, Iron & Wine) was then called in to unify the contributions, ensuring a consistent background for Francis’s finely wrought poetics. An admitted control freak, the MC confesses he wasn’t sure Li(f)e would hang together as well as it does.
“Coming into it, I was skeptical and concerned,” he recalls. “Brian had his own concerns and his own skepticism, too. He made sure I knew what kind of record he wasn’t going to make, and what kind of music he doesn’t like. When he did that, I started feeling more comfortable about it, because I liked that he felt strongly about the sound he wanted to achieve. He wanted to make sure this could never be misconstrued as a rap-metal record.”
Li(f)e’s concluding track, “The Best of Times”, will certainly never be confused with a Limp Bizkit song; against a gorgeous backdrop of plinking chimes and whirring electronics courtesy of the French composer Yann Tiersen (best known for the Amélie soundtrack), the rapper tells a bittersweet yarn about an awkward adolescent crush. Heralded by influential BBC DJ Zane Lowe, the song has earned Francis the most radio play of his career. It’s shocking, then, to hear that the MC, riding the biggest buzz of his professional life, thinks Li(f)e might be the last rap album he ever makes.
“I’ll certainly be making songs and I’ll certainly release stuff, but I just don’t know to what extent,” he says of his plans. “There are a lot of things that I put on the side through the years while making albums and touring and running my own label. I’d like the opportunity to explore other ways of making music.”
Sage Francis plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Monday (May 31).