Few rappers are as polarizing as Sage Francis. Diehard fans rhapsodize about his humor, politics and emotional vulnerability. Detractors believe he subverts the essence of hip-hop by focusing on whiny personal diatribes. Neither camp has it quite right � Sage is neither the savior nor the grim reaper of hip-hop. But at his Los Angeles concert in support of the corporate watchdog organization knowmore.org, the Rhode Island-born emcee proved that he's as endearing and versatile a performer as hip-hop's got.
Sage emerged from the wings wearing a black apron, a black beret and his trademark spectacles with the eyes crossed out, and immediately established an indelible rapport with his fans. With a beatific smile and a steady gaze toward the crowd, Sage rapped with a conversational cadence that sounded like he was having a one-on-one chat with every person in the room at the same time. It didn't matter that the first half of the set was just him and a beatbox (Sage jokingly referred to it as "DJ No Spin Zone"). Even at the cavernous Henry Fonda Theater, with ceilings so high it dwarfs full bands, Sage's mesmerizing presence was larger than life.
Over the last few years, Sage has transformed from the Joni Mitchell of hip-hop to rap music's Michael Moore, trading in the stark confessions of his 2002 debut, Personal Journals, for the muckraking political rebukes of this year�s A Healthy Distrust. Sage wove plenty of both into his set, ranging from a letter to a suicidal friend in "Inherited Scars" to an a cappella monologue that compared Hurricane Katrina to Watergate. But the best moments came when Sage melded the two approaches, as in the impassioned post-9/11 harangue "Makeshift Patriot." Underscoring the connection between the personal and political, Sage performed the track at the lip of the stage, trading verses with his audience.
Countering his supposed self-righteousness, Sage took every opportunity to embarrass himself. He moved differently than most emcees, gesticulating wildly in a manner more theatrical than street, and he brought out the three members of opening act, Sol.Illaquists of Sound, for a hokey synchronized dance break. He threw broccoli stalks at the audience like they were party favors, then drooled on one of them, held it up like a scepter, and chopped it in half before resuming "Climb Trees." Sage even made fun of his role as the father of emo-hop, at one point saying "You know where hip-hop was born? Rhode Island. That's where I first picked the fruit from the hip-hop tree." It was a relief to hear him be so ironically humble. When you're a white guy with a white audience making music that's rooted in black culture, you need a sense of humor about it.
The only misstep came during a battle rap toward the end of the concert, when Sage and guest emcees Alexandrah, DiVinci and Swamburger limply repeated "I like ninety-nine rappers but Jay-Z ain't one" over the beat to Jay�s "99 Problems." Sage is many things � introspective, angry, hilarious, poetic � but he doesn't do tough so well. By this point, though, Sage had already won over the crowd, and all he had to do was close the show on a high note. That he did, by turning the last two songs into energetic free-for-alls, featuring singer/songwriter Jolie Holland (singing Will Oldham's hook from "Sea Lion"), a guitarist and four emcees.
Sage Francis raps about building relationships � between lover and lover, father and son, citizen and country, our inner and external selves � and it's nice to know that the guy walks the walk. For an artist who's often accused of overdosing on introspection, Sage put on a totally selfless, inclusive show.
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