After a long and tense hiatus, Rhode Island-based emcee Sage Francis is back with his much-anticipated LP, “Copper Gone.” His previous album, “L(i)fe,” was produced with live, poppy instrumentation, but that change was only superficial. It was clear that the elder statesman of underground hip-hop was stalling.
On the upside, Francis steps out of his comfort zone to make some of the best songs he’s written yet, but on the downside, he doesn’t do it often enough for the album to feel much different. Sage’s attacks on the rich and corrupt, relentless introspection and vitriol are all here. “When I set myself free, this empty/Bag of a body tends to get burned in eulogy,” Francis raps on the climactic “Once Upon a Blood Moon.”
That intimacy is what made his full-length debut, “Personal Journals,” a masterpiece. He’s long past that album, and now that intimacy only comes in spurts. Francis is at his best on “Copper Gone” when he opts for straight talk.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than on the understated gut punch “Make Em Purr.” From his self-isolating tendencies to his cats, no corner of his dark world goes unexplored: “It’s been a year since I stepped into anyone else’s private quarters/I’ve been busy self-diagnosing disorders.”
Produced by underground maestro Buck 65, “Make Em Purr” stands out alongside the apology letter “Thank You” and “Over Under.” Lyrically, Sage is in similar form on this album. He’s a workman of wordplay, turning idioms on their heads and making clichés feel new and improved. “Seek a mountain you can punch until it explodes into molehills,” he chides on the track, “ID Thieves.”
But after 15 years of mostly that same thing, it’s gotten tired. And Sage doesn’t sound hungry enough or particularly interested in stretching himself. In the few instances he does, the album is better for it.
“Cheat Code” is the weakest song on the album. The beat is obnoxiously repetitive, and given that the lyrics are so strong, the campy electro synth feels like a disservice. But otherwise, the beats are so good here that they can overshadow Sage himself.
With an opening like the hard-hitting “Pressure Cooker” and the call-out track “ID Thieves,” it’s obvious Francis has a bone to pick with the industry, but he sounds like a relic, a younger, hungrier emcee looking to leave his mark.
Sage has written some great chapters in the tome of hip-hop, but with “Copper Gone” one would think he conflates greatness with sameness. Implications of greatness are here, but they’re bogged down with the safety of tired metaphor. Maybe another four-year hiatus would do the emcee good.