For a guy labeled by his album’s press release as the world’s best freestyle rapper, Sage Francis spends a lot of time talking on Li(f)e, a troubled album whose strange production choices expose his biggest weaknesses. The result is a collection of songs that never fully gets off the ground, spooling out like never-ending spoken introductions, as the rapper futilely waits for his beats to come to life.
Francis’s best work in the past has been loud and bombastic, consisting of jagged compositions that matched his vigorously angry but not totally clear-headed subject matter. His stock in trade is not the standard self-aggrandizement, but insecure neuroticism directed outward, tales of fear and self-doubt inflated into snarling chimeras. If not always even, his songs are usually notable for their trenchant self-exploration and genuine honesty.
Li(f)e proves that placing Francis against quieter backdrops only robs him of the necessary foil provided by more strident beats. The biggest problem here is definitely the mismatched pairing of the rapper with a spongy production style
that prevents his songs from reaching full impact. The backing turns what could be a prickly expression of clanging disfavor into a stunted miasma of bad feelings cushioned by soft acoustic guitar and polite percussion.
Mostly this style makes him play against his strengths. The lyrical focus is still crude, inflected with the kind of black-and-white renderings that leave little room for subtlety. But softened by the production, Francis scales back into more introspective modes, as evidenced by opener “Little Houdini,” in which he gets a little teary-eyed depicting the story of a misunderstood Florida inmate who the system just couldn’t hold. “This is not a country-western song,” he repeatedly scolds, but it sounds exactly like one, except the rollicking charm is replaced by soggy, petulant ire.
A lot of this remains Francis’s fault. The bizarre digression that frames “I Was Zero” makes very little sense, a common occurrence throughout the album, and the general focus on religion (see the “lie” hiding in the album’s title?) is half-baked and immature. The title topic of “London Bridge” gets vaguely related to the Boston Tea Party, with all of Francis’s anger seemingly vented at once in a sloppy, unfocused anti-imperialist outburst.
French composer Yann Tiersen’s airily cinematic touch does rescue “The Best of Times,” a plodding personal history shaped into a triumphant statement, but in general the feel is inequitable, simultaneously overexposing more embarrassing lyrics while keeping Francis’s fury in check. Some overt missteps seem like poor attempts to infuse energy, as with the inexplicable children’s chorus that accompanies “London Bridge.” Splashed with the marks of two styles veritably at odds with each other, Li(f)e is a messy example of creative head-butting resulting in a conflicted whimper of an album.