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Sage Francis
Li(f)e Oli Marlow , June 2nd, 2010 11:28

The iconic, inspirational and oft twisted words of rapper Sage Francis have touched many people over the years. From his first self-released Sick of... albums – collections of freestyles, guest spots and general lyrical tomfoolery – through to his three albums on ANTI and his breakthrough debut full length, 2002's Personal Journals on the Anticon label, he's managed to use his words to cut to the core of people, sufficiently summing up their highs and sighs as much as their relationship's demise. So eloquent is his craft that a lyric used in a previous song – "life is just a lie with an f in it, and death is definite" – touch a lot of fans and was transformed into a tattoo that incorporated the bracketed f; an act that in turn inspired the title of Francis' newest offering, Li(f)e.

Themed around the title's subject matter the album is a small but natural departure from Francis' previous work, the musical backdrops to his fierce syllable deliveries are crafted completely by a live band rather than a motley crew of producers. While his previous methods worked gloriously in kick heavy effect across his previous long players, the music on Li(f)e seems to represent Francis' growth as a human being, sounding both organic and effortlessly emotive. After hints at such a transition with skits and tracks like 'Jah Didn't Kill Johnny' or 'My Name is Strange', where Francis explored the performance aspect of a live band, the idea has come full circle.

Undoubted album highlight and runaway single 'Best of Times' is the pinnacle of this stylistic approach, with Francis' chronological life raps taking uplifting and sobering voice alongside Amelie composer Yann Tiersann's soundtrack. An ability to speak to the everyman is something that has always stood out about Francis' work, and a fine sense of empathy is at play here. This same personable approach combines with verbal dexterity in opening track 'Little Houdini', where Francis recounts the story of a convict on the run from the police due to the fact both his parents are on death's doorstep.

Embracing the story telling schematics of fellow Strange Famous labelmates Bernard Dolan and spoken word master Buddy Wakefield enables Francis to work his lyrics both from dialogues about tragic life experiences and inner monologues. 'Diamonds and Pearls' exemplifies Francis' playful side as he constructs verses out of tired clichés atop the moodiest musical piece on the album, built solely out of reversed bass notes, live drums and eerie backing vocals. 'The Baby Steps' finds Francis musing over relationships, juxtaposing his vicious tongue twists over a straight country and western acoustic guitar workout.

Having followed the Sage Francis journey across labels, albums, guest spots and intimate live and spoken word performances, its thankfully incredibly heart warming to bond with him once again on Li(f)e, even though the music is no longer some of the most banging Sixtoo-esque alt hip hop. He's amplified the emotion with his choice of instrumentation, becoming more grandiose in his ideas as a direct result. There are lowlights where Francis' words don't fuse as uniquely with the music, 'London Bridge' being somewhat of a case in point, but the range of ideas, execution of moods and his general newfound level of maturity is like the welcome return of an old friend.

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