Storytellers

Sage Francis, a prominent white underground rapper out of the poetry slam scene of Providence, Rhode Island, has a new album out this month. Sage was one of the first hip-hop artists I really became obsessed with, entranced by his moody, abstract wordplay, his genre-bending production and his irresistible flow. Sage is often cynical and dark, and his lyrics can be replayed over and over again, finding new bits of cleverness each time, without ever being fully understood. He recites them more like spoken word than rap, and his beats sometimes stray into the realms of heavy rock or even twangy folk music. But that’s all part of his strength: his sound and style is unique even in the circles of slam rappers he travels in. His second studio album, A Healthy Distrust, remains one of my favourite albums ever. If he has a flaw, it is that his hooks are sometimes less than catchy, and this most afflicted his last outing, Human The Death Dance, and left only a few decent songs. Luckily his new album, Li(f)e, feels much more polished and is fun to listen to all the way through. Complex themes, diverse production, and a charismatic emcee. Sage Francis’s Li(f)e is highly recommended.

But there is one song in particular that I want to talk about, one that offers a welcome change of approach for Sage. The first song on the album, a six minute plus track titled “Little Houdini,” is a story. “Little Houdini” tells the true story of Christopher Daniel Gay, an American convict who escaped custody three times: once to visit his dying father, then again later to visit his dying mother, and a third time just to be free. Equal parts inspiring and tragic, Sage tells the story of Christopher with a clarity and addictive sense of purpose that he never achieves in his more autobiographical tracks.

There has always been storytelling in hip-hop, but usually these songs are the exceptions, not the rule. And that’s a shame, I think, because a crisp narrative arc can make a song compelling and timeless in a way that few simple club bangers or catchy chart-toppers manage. Looking back on his career, I think two of Eminem’s three most memorable songs were stories: “Lose Yourself,” a rousing semi-autobiographical masterpiece about a troubled rapper’s one chance at stardom, and “Stan,” about an obsessive fan’s descent into murder-suicide (the third, “The Real Slim Shady,” is a manifesto). Lupe Fiasco is one of my favourite artists in the game in part because of his propensity for storytelling: “Kick, Push,” a two-part tale of skater romance, “Hip-Hop Saved My Life,” a feel-good story about escaping poverty and crime in the ghettos of Houston through musical success, and “Little Weapon,” with a grim first-person verse putting us in the shoes of a child soldier in Africa. Underground Harlem rapper Immortal Technique, being viciously political, lost much of his relevancy when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, but he will always be remembered for his song “Dance With the Devil,” a chilling story about the tragic criminal depths to which some people will sink in pursuit of money, power and respect. I am eagerly awaiting “The Hamilton Mixtape,” a concept album by Tony Award-winning playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda about the life of 18th Century American politician Alexander Hamilton, the first track of which Miranda performed last year at the White House Poetry Jam. These are all great songs that get at the core of the human experience, that entertain with both music and myth creation.

I really see storytelling as the way forward for many great hip-hop artists who are currently stagnant in their success. Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne — these are fantastic rappers who made it big describing the essential experiences of their demographic generation: poverty, racism, gang violence, materialism, drugs, et al. But as millionaire rap stars they found they mostly talked about issues of great importance to, well, millionaire rap stars. Their music might still be fun to listen to, but their subject-matter has become somewhat harder for their fans to identify with. How many of us can really relate to a song about “rolling down Fifth in an off-white Lexus”? This is the tragic coming-of-age myth of hip-hop, its Paradise Lost. Rap can articulate the cultural experience of a voiceless demographic group, but those that articulate it the best inevitably find themselves pulled out of that group and into lifestyles of the rich and famous.

Tha Carter III, The Blueprint 3, Graduation — these aren’t albums that changed anyone’s life, not like The College Dropout or Reasonable Doubt. Who really cares what labels Kanye is wearing or what brand of liquor Wheezy is drinking? We get all that stuff from People Magazine as it is. I believe in these artists — their raw talent is undeniable — but if they want to compete in the new decade with the younger generation of up-and-coming hipster rappers, they need to offer something timeless, something elemental, something divorced from their daily lives but bound up with the dramatic patterns of human nature. They need to tell stories.

Sage Francis never had the kind of sell-out success that pulled Hov and Yeezy off the streets and into ivory towers, but still “Little Houdini” is one of the best songs he has ever done. That’s the power of stories. People and their feelings are complicated and forever unclear, with lots of ambiguities and loose ends. Characters in stories can be simple, complete, satisfying in ways that our own lives can never be. I’m not saying that hip-hop shouldn’t explore the messy nuances of personal and generational experiences. But those nuances too often hold us down, lock us into doubt and inaction. Sometimes we just need to get away from all that. Sometimes, like Christopher Daniel Gay, we just need to escape.

Check out music from Sage Francis’s new album Li(f)e at http://www.myspace.com/sagefrancis.

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