Let's Hear It For One of the Good Guys
Saul Williams is one of the best poets in America. I watched him paralyze an entire auditorium with one poem at the National Poetry Slam a few years ago. The poem was all about how he wanted to go to Saturn; it was, for him as it was for Stevie Wonder back in 1976, a symbol of paradise where no one can hold down the individual. And Williams was spellbinding, a mystic, a griot, a madman with a method and one hell of a huge-ass vocabulary. But it wasn’t just that that got us all going. He was also interrupting and supporting himself with his own voice turntablism: scratches, samples, all performed by him while kicking some advanced-level metaphors. It was some awesome shit and no one could touch him that night.
He is also a hell of a nice guy, like that matters. He just came through our neck of the woods on a spoken-word tour and he stayed after to talk to every single person who wanted to chat, including a whole bunch of high school bohemian poets who want to be just like him. You see, Williams is one of those annoying renaissance people. Not only is he a great performer and a published poet, but he also starred in Slam, which is the greatest movie you’ve never seen. And remember the tall quiet really dark-skinned guy in K-Pax? That was him, too. The ranting poet guy on the last Roni Size album? Yep. A really cool person with talent to burn and a whole lot of ambition is rare in this world. It makes you kind of want to root for Saul Williams.
But now here he comes with his first album, produced by Rick Rubin and released on American Recordings, and the whole “nice guy” thing goes out the window because with music it doesn’t matter. Plenty of complete assholes have made great records, and plenty more wonderful people have perpetrated some awful albums. When I put something in the player, I’m not thinking about anything else other than the music I hear and what it means and how it makes me feel. So I’m really glad to be able to say that this is an extremely dope album full of wonderful words delivered well to some surprisingly good music. It ain’t perfect by a long shot, but if “perfect” is all you’re looking for in a record then you’re a sad little person.
Here’s the deal with hip-hop slam poets: their albums are usually very hit-and-miss affairs. I loved Carl Hancock Rux’s Rux Revue when it came out back in 1999, but I can understand why not everyone did—a lot of shouted repetition, some underdone musical tracks, and the overall feeling that he was working too hard. And Williams goes down some of the same roads here. His “rock” track, “Fearless”, is all about a mess—self-consciously “heavy” music, unnecessarily repeated lines that don’t sound as good as maybe he thought they would (“I am a poet who composes what the world proses / And proses what the world composes” shouldn’t probably even be said once, much less shouted twice), and some iffy singing that almost makes you forget his amazing microphone style.
But symphony or damn if that isn’t the only sketchy track here. Everything else is pretty strong in all its ragged glory, from the circus-on-acid opener “Lalala” (“Nigga you betta drink half a gallon / Of Shaolin / Before you pluck the strings of my violin”) to the Rorshach-blot of a final track, “Wine”, which appears in two parts and spans almost a quarter of an hour. In between, we get to see the soul of a very deep man. And it’s set to a very wild soundtrack. His band, which contains a violinist, a cellist, a guitarist, a bass player, a keyboard player, a DJ, and the very impressive Chris Eddleston on drums, takes on a whole lot of different styles, and knocks just about all of them out of the park.
“Penny for a Thought” is an early highlight. Here, Williams calls out all the fake representing that rappers do for what it is: hogwash and snake-oil. It takes a brave artist to make the following connection: “An emcee tells a crowd of hundreds to put their hands in the air / An armed robber steps into a bank and tells everyone to put their hands in the air”. Sure, L.L. Cool J did something similar back in 1990 on “Cheesy Rat Blues”, but he was just doing a song—Williams is here indicting an entire culture, his own audience, for listening to thug rappers. But the critique goes further. He even goes after himself, for trying to get a piece of it: “Niggas used to buy their families out of slavery / Now we buy chains and links, smokes and drinks / And they’re paying me to record this / Even more if you listen to it.”
Not that Williams hates hip-hop music, far from it. He drops names (Rakim, DMX), quotes songs (“Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” on “Untimely Meditations”, “You’re a Customer” and “La Di Da Di” on “1987”), and speaks in the cadence of rap music. And it’s not like he spends the whole album complaining about the sins of others, either. The hardcore drum’n'bass of “Coded Language”—with programming by Krust from Roni Size’s Reprazent crew—is a positive personal manifesto where he gets to pay homage to all his heroes, from Coltrane and Davis to Scott LaRock and Tupac Shakur to Steven Biko and Ché Guevara and Gurdjieff and Plath and Ghandi and Hurston and . . . well, the list goes on and on. But the song ends with a vow: “We enlist every instrument: acoustic, electronic / Every so-called race, gender, sexual preference / Every per-son as beings of sound to acknowledge their responsibility: / To uplift the consciousness of the the entire fucking world.” And then two and a half more minutes of d’n'b! Yeah, baby!
His topics are as diverse as his mind: cultural diversity on “Om Nia Merican”, spiritual renewal on “Wine” and “Tao of Now”, and parental responsibility on “Our Father”. This last track begins with several minutes of a sermon by the Rev. Saul Williams, Sr., who sounds like just about the coolest preacher of all time. Indeed, if Amethyst Rock Star has a theme, it has to do with Saul Williams, Jr., and how he is trying to find his way as a father. Williams’ daughter, whose name is Saturn (surprise, surprise), is always on his mind. He is only awakened out of the surreal dreamscape on “Robeson” by the thought, “I keep thinking that I have to be done in time to pick Saturn up from school.” She pops up on track after track as a grounding influence, a child to protect, a soul to nurture, an aspiration to reach. It’s quite touching, but maybe that’s just because I have children and I feel the same way. Not a lot of hip-hop out there that shows such reverence for young people, so it’s cool as hell to hear this.
But this is not an album for everybody. If it’s really important to you for songs to last three minutes and to have a straightforward verse/chorus/verse thing happening, then steer clear. If you hate poetry, or if your idea of great rap is P. Diddy guesting on a Ludacris track, stay far away. And if you have no soul and your heart is a blighted barren place . . . well, actually, maybe you’d better give this one a try. Because Saul Williams is a talented man, and a deep man, and he just might spin your head all around.
And he’s a really really really nice guy. Shouldn’t the nice guys win one?
// Notes from the Road
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