On his new album, Saul Williams (Nuyorican Soul Slam Poetry champion, writer of “Said The Shotgun To The Head”, spoken word artist, political activist, singer, MC) has really stripped things back. In a time when even Mos Def hides behind make-up and a pseudonym, seemingly grown bored with being an MC, this self-titled record takes it back to the raw: dark, angry, simple(r). Gone is the mesmeric centre of calm power from Blackalicious’ “Release”, the Amethyst Rock Star weaving epic, labyrinthine feats of ultra-lyrical mythology over drum’n’bass and Rick Rubin-produced jazz-rock, gone is the beard.
In, are a sparser, grimmer, rockier backdrop (including contributions by Thavius Beck and System Of A Down’s Serj Tankian), lyrics charged with a rough’n’ready energy and short, focused songs that showcase a Saul eager to get up close and spit (or even scream) in your face. This is “Penny For Your Thoughts” Saul turned up to eleven: scared, bleeding and frantic with desperation.
At first listen, these defiantly bald and grinding compositions can be hard going, but give them time and it becomes evident that Saul has left behind neither his penetrating insight nor his lacerating honesty, and he stills channels his extraordinary world view through brilliant turns of phrase that place him amongst the premiere MCs of all time. One could quote almost of all of “Telegram”, his State Of Emergency address to hip-hop (“Please inform all interested parties that cash nor murder have been added to the list of elements”); go on about the way “African Student Movement”, in a mere four minutes, captures the ongoing history of atrocities towards African peoples of all kinds over crude hypnotic bass that’s revealed as essentially African; analyse how the Zach De La Rocha-featuring “Act III Scene 2 (Shakespeare)” welds hip-hop into literary tradition whilst making an impassioned “call out to the youth”: none of this would capture the intensity of Saul on record. Nor would I have mentioned “Black Stacey”, the most intimate and intelligent dissection of racism since “Clear Blue Skies”, that builds from simple ragtime piano into a lush string-led anthem with a killer beat and an instantly memorable chorus.
This is not a perfect record, either musically or lyrically (Saul still gets lost in his own wordplay sometimes), but it is easily the most passionate hip-hop album to come out this year, and the most powerful (both politically and emotionally) if you’re brave enough to listen. No other MC will make you reconsider the world around you the way Saul Williams will. He hasn’t changed.
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