Why is it so hard to be an underground hip-hop hero? Perhaps because the mainstream hip-hop heroes have already claimed so much of the best turf for themselves. "I like 99 rappers, but Jay-Z ain't one," Sage Francis declared at the Bowery Ballroom on Wednesday night. And to prove it, he steered clear of all things Jay-Z-ish. That meant no slick outfits (the rapper and his band all wore black jumpsuits), no jewelry, no high-life boasts or low-life threats. But it also meant no impossibly smooth stanzas filled with hidden jokes and counterrhythms; no mesmerizing stories or irresistible refrains; no state-of-the-art beats or propulsive club tracks. What was left? Lots of bitter sarcasm, for starters. Mr. Francis, a white rapper, has built his career on a foundation of rage and disillusionment: when he said, "This song is about how awesome guns are," listeners knew he meant the opposite; when he began the show with a verse that started, "I used to think that rappers had it figured out," everyone knew that he was about to explain how wrong he'd been. Mr. Francis has spent the past few years amassing a cult of fans who prefer the overwrought to the overproduced. He delivers his heavy-handed barrages with the single-minded fury of a punk rock singer, which might be one reason that his new album, "A Healthy Distrust," was released by the punk label Epitaph. (To get a taste of the fractious, obsessive world of Sage Francis fans, visit the energetic Internet forum, inhalerproductions.com/forum/index.php, that he calls home. The album has lots of densely written rhymes and even a tune or two (the indie-rock singer Will Oldham contributes a chorus), but it's still no fun to listen to: there are some clever couplets ("In a world where the girls got retro tattoos/ All I've got is a gut and Velcro black shoes"), but his harangues don't give them room to breathe. At Bowery Ballroom, Mr. Francis's backup rappers (two women, one man) sometimes added some playful energy by pairing off, boy-against-girl, trading gruff lines for sing-song ones. But the most ambitious new songs sounded even worse live. A drawn-out version of "Sun Vs Moon" only highlighted the ill-considered lyrics: "God's not a woman/ He's a big white guy in the sky/ And the deserts are reflections of his eyes." (And he wonders why some rappers stick with crime and clubs?) This was a night overrun with words, so perhaps it's no surprise that the highlight was all words: an a cappella version of "Slow Down Gandhi," his bitter but ambivalent protest poem. Whispering and shouting and singing and talking, Mr. Francis lambasted both warmongers and pacifists, getting closer and closer to his perverse goal: he's a rapper who dreams of being a lecturer. ...very on point.