The Fader Label
aul Williams has described his mish-mash of spoken word and experimental pop styles “industrial punk-hop”, a convenient name for a sound that wouldn’t appeal to purist fans of any of those genres. He’s made a career out of defying expectations, whether through his work as a filmmaker (the Sundance-approved Slam), poet (three published collections over the past seven years) and musician.
On his self-titled follow-up to 2001’s hit-or-miss Amethyst Rockstar, he attempts to distill every issue and musical genre personal to him in only twelve tracks. Needless to say, the results are wildly uneven, vacillating from a hushed lament to a blistering assault within seconds. Blame for this aural mess cannot be heaped upon the too-many-cooks presence of multiple beatmakers, but lies at the feet of Williams, who, through his own ambitious musical pursuits, is responsible for nine of the twelve productions here.
On “List of Demands”, he tries to harness the same stream-of-conscious magic that made “Coded Language”, his collaboration with DJ Krust, such a compelling listen. But back in 1999, that type of industrial carnage sounded, at least, somewhat new. In 2004, it sounds a bit stale. Saul doesn’t help things either by reminding us that “on the stage or street, [he] don’t need no microphone or beat”. A few listens to the backing track and one begins to wish Williams had taken some of his own advice and offered up a couple of those acapella performances for which he became known.
Your enjoyment of the album will hinge considerably on how many Sauls you can stomach. There’s the quiet, introspective Saul on “Talk to Strangers”, the angry, fulminating Saul on “Act III Scene 2 (Shakespeare)” or the squealing, howling Saul on “Surrender (A Second To Think)”. Psychologists would be quick to drop the “schizo” diagnosis, but others will just opt for “pretentious”.
Thematically, the album covers an impressive amount of ground over its short length. Careening from love to politics to racism to spirituality, at its core, the album is about Williams’ personal rocky relationship with hip-hop. He exhibits a tendency to personify the culture in his lyrics, usually as beaten, exploited and exhausted. On “Telegram”, he laments, “Hip-hop is lying on the side of the road, half dead to itself. Blood scrawled over its mangled flesh, like jazz.” Later, he sends the titular message to hip-hop: “Dear hip-hop. Stop. This shit has gone to far. Stop. Please see that the mixer and turntables are returned to Kool Herc. Stop.” With the near obsessive amount of time he spends analyzing and re-analyzing hip-hop, it comes off as a little more than ironic that very few self-proclaimed hip-hop fans would regard this as an example of the genre. Although he makes it difficult to enjoy the music, as a poet, he remains infinitely quotable throughout. Some his best moments come from the album’s highlight and centerpiece, “Black Stacey”, Saul’s only flirtation with mainstream hip-hop catchiness. “Even if you tote a glock and you’re hot on the streets, if you dare to share your heart, we’ll nod our head to its beat,” should be a guiding principle of the hip-hop underground.
However, on the opening track, he warns “this is not for the underground, this here is for the sun”, shedding light on the eponymous title for all us Earth dwellers; for it seems Saul Williams may have created an album for the loneliest of audiences, himself.
Reviewed by: Gabe Gloden
Reviewed on: 2004-09-16