Assured delivery puts less versatile MCs to shame, demonstrating a sharp range of styles, an acute knowledge of hip hop history and some impressive lyrical stunts.

By Demented Toddler

“I’m sick of head raps”, says Sage Francis, but Hope, his first outing with producer Joe Beats, is certainly an album for heads, by no means “down with the mainstream”. The Non-Prophets’ website holds plenty of manifesto material which sets out their approaches to making music. It is a credit to their integrity that they adhere to them here, producing an entertaining, likeable record in the process. The Prophets’ integrity ensures the quality of their work, but it does reduce their capacity for experiment somewhat. Beats considers himself a “digger”, rather than a producer proper, unwilling to do much beyond looping. He is an accomplished “routine master”, unwilling to add technological flourishes or to play up flourishes of technique, but with a keen ear for a sample. Damage has him at his peak, with its atmospheric rhodes hook reminiscent of Mono’s Life in Mono.

The odd result of Beats’ approach is an album which draws on such diverse sources as Smoke City’s ’97 hit Underwater Love and an 1889 letter from Vincent Van Gogh to his brother, but somehow lacks variety; Joe himself admits he is no DJ Shadow (whose influence is evident here, not least on That Ain’t Right). Disasters tests these limitations: a spare track designed to foreground Francis’ lyrics, the electronic toy sounds which punctuate it cannot be more significantly incorporated into the track under Beats’ rules, and he runs the risk of gimmickry.

Sage Francis’ skilful versifying has an unfortunate flipside to it as well. The simple but effective chant on Damage is an exception to others on the album, as the Prophets’ predilection for choruses is not complemented by a knack for writing particularly good ones. Their over-simple refrains, not desperately original, suffer from being adjacent to Francis’ quick, clever-clever, densely allusive verses. For some reason, his attempts at shout-a-long don’t quite convince: when he says “bounce” and “jump”, you don’t really feel like getting up.

But this is not where the Non-Prophets’ strengths lie. Sage’s main schtick as a lyricist is to twist clichéd phrases, which, itself a cliché (well-used already by the likes of Carter USM). This sometimes has mixed results: “fairy godmother... fucker” is ok, and “I don’t strike a pose / I strike a poser” is fun, but “can’t we all just get along / stick and beat each other with it” borders on pantomime, and even the Prophets themselves insert a groan on the track after “When my time comes / it’d better wear a studded condom”.

The Message parody, “I’m trying not to... give your girl head” nearly buried at the end of Any Port is an early indication that this is an album made by two people who are both hip hop aficionados and historians. Joe samples “I’m not a prophet prince a ruler or a squire” from Black Sheep’s Try Counting Sheep; Sage reminds us that “back in the day / NWA made cops shudder”, his lyrics peppered with Tribe Called Quest references. “Hey sucka poet, wherever you are” adapts Midnight Marauders’ Sucka Nigga; “candy rappers” is borrowed from We Can Get Down on the same album. Sage even pauses to correct Phife Dawg’s Buggin Out line, “I float like gravity / never had a cavity” with “Hey Phife, gravity don’t float”. Ten years late and pedantic this is hypocrisy from an MC who fumbles the logic of “opportunity knocks only to be handed an eviction notice”, and takes liberties with mathematics (as well as Dr Octagon) with “half sharkalligator half man / half amazing”. But maybe he’s only joking.

When on target Francis’ humour is terrific: he is at his best when he imitates others least. When his social observations avoid triteness and his technique dodges the formulaic, he comes up with real gems, like “doing a thesis on ebonics / unconscious of using poor grammar”, and the best of his medium-strength blasphemy (which starts with a sub-Mike Ladd mock lord’s prayer at the beginning of the album), “The Bible’s a good read / like Stephen King’s Needful Things”.

Assured delivery puts less versatile MCs to shame, demonstrating a sharp range of styles, an acute knowledge of hip hop history and some impressive lyrical stunts. There’s a great moment where his alter ego Xaul Zan says “I’m deeper than Sage Francis”, but such throwaway lines leave the listener keen for more explanation – how can he say “I dig women who got more to get off their chests than wet t-shirts” shortly after having exclaimed “I am womaniser, hear me whore”?

There are various unnerving moments in Hope not least within the first song, which sometimes sounds like the bits in Linkin Park that go between the thrashing and screaming. On the whole it provides plenty of listening pleasure, and offers some real rewards lyrically and musically – RJD2 would be entirely jealous of the samples Joe Beats has dug up. It must be expected to appeal first to others who share the Non-Prophets’ healthy love for the hip hop, but its capacity to grow on anyone is impressive, with some genuinely memorable (and catchy) beats and rhymes. It’s not desperately radio or even dancefloor friendly, but in spite and perhaps because of this, well worth picking up.
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