4.5/5 Stars

There are few words, if any, better to describe Sage Francis's 2014 release "Copper Gone" than "a breath of fresh air." That is, in a world of over-produced hip-hop draped in vapid themes, the end of Francis' four-year hiatus since 2010's "Li(f)e" has quietly brought a bit of rejuvenation back to the genre with its complex lyricism and strikingly unique beats.

The album opens with "Pressure Cooker" and a sample of the phrase "Where have you been?" seemingly in reference to Francis himself and his nearly half-decade absence. It takes only a moment before bursting into an absolutely enormous, near-cacophonous beat. For lack of better terms, it's simply marvelous; a true smack in the face to proponents of minimalism. This is excessive, heavy and awesome.

Francis's rapping on "Pressure Cooker" falls into his traditional delivery of sharp articulation and metaphorical lines like "Plus, I don’t care to defend sides of myself that I don’t like much/I am what I am, that's all that I am, bullshit don't got that right touch/Let the better half I push and scratch its way out/Get on all fours, put a saddle on your back and let the pain mount." Meanwhile, "Vonnegut Busy" is a decisively massive departure from earlier albums, with delivery that does not even resemble the slower yet more contemplative displays on 2002's "Personal Journals" or 2005's "A Healthy Distrust." Instead, Francis delivers a machine-gunfire of lyricism akin to Eminem's delivery on "The Marshall Mathers LP 2" — at least, in a pop sense and time-wise, this would be the most expected correlation. However, I find this rapid-fire style more reminiscent of Big L's freestyle prose. Nonetheless, the undeniably clever use of socio-political themes and a hook rife with cynicism and self-deprecation is more than enough to set Francis far enough off from stepping on any toes.

And then there are tracks like "Dead Man's Float," something so incredibly unique, genre-bending and masterfully produced that it provides validation for any other flaw that could possibly be on the album. There is some sloppy production here and there: "Over Under," while having an awesome string-laden beat, is mostly a cliché track about having trouble getting laid and the other lame phrases found sprinkled, infrequently yet present, through "Copper Gone." Those flaws are all excused by "Dead Man's Float." A minimalist beat accompanied by sing-song echo of the phrase "Float on" serve as the backdrop to Francis's manic display of poetry, which is so dense with political metaphors, ironic phrasing and wordplay that can conservatively be referred to as genius that it's impossible to pick a single line to adequately sum up the intensity of this track. Perhaps "Got baptised in the name of Neptune and then died for him/When the ice got thin, dead man's float for those who don't like to swim." Or "Swimming through iron limbs of the knighted stiffs/The skeletal remains of false praise, the slow decay of yesterday's recycled gifts." It's essentially a grab-bag of artfully-crafted lyricism.

"Copper Gone," through everything and without overanalyzing every bit of lyricism, is just a solid hip-hop album. It strives at depth without pretension, fun without cliche and cynicism without depression. And, for the overwhelming majority, it masterfully succeeds.

For fans of: Cunninlynguists, Cannibal Ox, Eminem