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Defiantly, obstinately, vociferously independent, Sage Francis has operated in the rundown borderlands of rap since his endlessly re-issued Sick of Waiting Tables spawned an unlikely underground icon.

Add to that list of adverbs a bunch of adjectives: political, iconoclastic, battle-hardened, and you've got a study of an operator quite apart from the fashionista millionaires club which rules the hip-hop roost. I can safely say, and I try not to editorialise as a rule, that 99% of the rap that fills blogs across the planet is devoid of a fraction of the skill this guy has honed over the years, and the commitment he has displayed to the cause of his beloved culture.

But rap isn't just about skill, clever put-downs, battles, or political grandstanding. It's a complete art form, not just a technique. I would be the first to say that, other than his 1999 breakthrough Personal Journals, and his contribution to DJ Signify's terrifying Sleep No More alongside long time friend Buck 65, much of his output is patchy. Sage's self-created label Strange Famous Records has a slogan: What Doesn't Kill Hip-Hop Only Makes It Stranger. Sage has talked in interviews about his creative / philosophical mantra. Stick to your principles. Learn your technique. Then originate. That's good advice.

I can't say I agree that Sage has always practised what he preached. I don't see a bold progression from the Non Prophets album Hope to A Healthy Distrust. It's been four years since his last album, 2010's Li(f)e, since then he's been running his own label, and by his own admission, increasingly buried in paperwork and meetings. Running a label is a big responsibility to balance with being a full-time artist.

There is certainly a busy feel to Copper Gone. On 'Pressure Cooker' double kick pedal takes the place of cuts in a part-drill pop / part-melancholic rock workout. Break-up song 'Grace' is more recognisably Sage, a '99 beat with live synths and digital reverb that gives it that Aim, plastic cave effect, like listening to beats inside a bath tub. Problem is, I find myself concentrating obsessively on the beats, which should never be the focal point with Sage.

The album isn't lacking in lyrical content, or in rhyme technique. There's always been something about Sage's delivery that felt considered, workmanlike even. His sentence structures are familiar, maybe a little over-familiar. Even so, the album sees him as bitter and pointed as in his greatest moments; 'ID Thieves' has a great Big L-referencing put down for rappers claiming to be independent, though honestly I'd rather he had the strength of his convictions to name names. Perhaps he thinks that would lack class.

Class is precisely what the beats seem to aim for. We haven't seen production as smooth as this on a Sage album before; 'Dead Man's Float' has that chart-friendly cymbal smash backing the kick at the start of each bar, while 'Over Under' is the best beat on show, coming in at a pithy 2 mins 48 with not a moment wasted.

You know, regardless of your state of mind, that Sage will open that big heart of his wide like tiger jaws, and share every guilty thought and dirty corner with you, asking not that you applaud robotically, but that you have the patience to listen and the wherewithal to draw your own conclusions. It's cerebral, visceral storytelling. How you feel about that is your prerogative.

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