Eminem, who famously transmitted his message of trailer-park angst straight to the suburbs, was hip hop's equivalent to Nirvana.
The latest wave of postmodern producers and emcees -- often called "indie rappers" or "backpackers" -- absorbs the production values of post-rock and electronica while holding on tightly to the coattails of Mr. Mathers.
Fitting nicely into this chronology is Sage Francis, a resident of Rhode Island, whose recent rise epitomizes an altogether positive hip-hop development: White emcees no longer have to be stigmatized with "the next Eminem" tag.
Along with contemporaries such as Atmosphere and Aesop Rock, Sage represents a flipped script on the cultural signifiers of the genre; most black fans of Jay-Z and Nas don't care, and don't know, about Sage's "black music intertwined with a white man's line dance." After all, though indie types may notice the potent beats, they'll be more impressed that the mournful "Sea Lion" was co-written with melancholy alt-country icon Will Oldham.
And although A Healthy Distrust relates to math-rock for its unrelenting wordplay and verbal dexterity, Sage also wields the righteous ire of the latest Rock Against Bush punk. That probably explains his draw for Epitaph Records, which is owned by Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz. Now a veteran of several European tours, and with verses such as "I freedom kiss the French for their political dissent," and "They demonized welfare/middle class eliminated/rich get richer 'til the poor get educated," Sage lounges comfortably next to the Anti-Flag and Rage Against the Machine CDs of the ardent political activist planning the next anti-globalist demonstration.
The majority of A Healthy Distrust, however, isn't about distrust of the New World Order at all. Rather, much deals with the inner demons of Sage's own psyche. A complicated soul, on Distrust he's as reflective and introspective as he is angry and vitriolic. Tracks such as "Crumble" and "Agony in Her Body" explain why some naysayers have (unfairly) tagged Sage's subgenre as "emo rap." After all, you certainly won't find gangstas pouring out their feelings, like therapy on wax.
Of course, gangstas and backpackers aside, no hip-hop album is truly complete without a heaping helping of the bravado inherent in the genre. The abstract virtuosity of, say, "Escape Artist," sets Sage apart as a figure often admired -- and relentlessly duplicated -- in the competitive realm of battle raps. "When I first broke into magic, it was an underground phenomenon," he explains. "Now everybody's like, 'Pick a card, any card.'"
A Healthy Distrust is as solid a hand to pull from the deck as anything you're likely to find in hip hop today.