Saul Williams wants to save hip-hop and poetry at the same time, breathing musty breath into these two neglected art forms from both sides of his mouth. These days, many would argue that the former is a curiosity of a past age when attention spans were longer and people were willing to gather together in the same room to listen to one individual speak. Meanwhile, others argue that hip-hop has become so saccharine and homogenized that the musical genre can no longer be considered the form of urban punk rock rebellion it once was. But Williams, with his crusade to bring a little hip-hop to the spoken word movement, and elevate rap’s lyricism back to social relevance, wants to change all that. It may just be that both modes of expression are beyond repair, and should be allowed to fade into the sunset. But if Williams has his way, they’ll be able to evolve into whatever’s next. It’s a task he’s been preparing for his entire life.
Born in Newbaugh, New York, Williams claims to have been fascinated with vocabulary from an early age. His father was a preacher and his mother was a schoolteacher, so words were of the utmost importance in Williams’ youth. But he never thought they would come to dominate his life. He would go on to study Philosophy at Morehouse College, and later Theater as a graduate student at NYU. With such experience, it seems inevitable that he would have fallen in with New York’s flourishing spoken-word scene in the mid-nineties. He made a name for himself at the Brooklyn Moon Café, and in 1996 became the Nuyorican Poet Café’s Grand Slam Champion. From there he went on to help write and star in the feature film Slam, about a young man who relies on spoken word poetry to deal with the misery of his environment. Slam won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Camera D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, which garnered the movie enough attention for a limited theater run in the U.S. The soundtrack features fine examples of Williams’ work with hip-hop luminaries such as KRS-1. Since then, Williams has published numerous books of poetry and worked with acclaimed musical artists, including The Fugees, Erykah Badu, and De La Soul.
In the six years since Slam came out, Williams has continued to straddle the line, in an attempt to blur it, between these two art forms. Some would argue that distinguishing between the two is an exercise in both obsessive classification and intellectual elitism. What Williams does on his second major release is compromise.
The self-titled follow-up to Amethyst Rock Star kicks off with “Talk to Strangers”, which is the closest thing to a spoken word performance Williams has to offer on the new album. System of a Down’s Serj Tankian produced the track and provides a broken piano loop in the background for this gritty number, his production complimenting the bold, syncopated rhythm of Williams’ voice. It’s this kind of ghetto social commentary that Williams has always been good at; here Williams reminds his listener why he’s still considered a poet first, and an actor/musician next. If you choose to read the lyrics in the accompanying CD booklet you’ll notice that he waxes melodramatic at times with his syntax. It’s not the kind of poetry that will be appearing as an example in anyone’s Literature textbook. But with instruments and a group of resurrected P-Funk soul sisters at his back in the chorus, Williams delivers like a heavyweight.
“Grippo”, the second in the album’s one-two opening, sounds like a gimmick at first listen. It’s drum & bass bang competes with Williams’ poor imitation of a reggae dancehall toast. But give it time, and it’ll grow on you like so much Lil’ Jon. It’s obvious that Williams is using the dub style to make a mess out of the current untidy state of hip-hop: “Hip hop is lying on the sidewalk / Half dead to itself”. Williams seems both disgusted by the state of the genre and completely accepting of it. That’s the beauty of this particular song. Yes, that sampled guitar riff is “Supertouch”, courtesy of Bad Brains. Listen to it a few times and you’ll realize that it’s one of the best cuts on the Saul Williams. Even if you don’t agree with the man’s assessments of the state of music, it’s hard to argue with the honesty of lines like “Cops writing vernacular manslaughter onto a yellow pad”. He’s using smart metaphors to get his point across about the half-dead state of hip-hop. He says he’s christened the style he’s using in numbers like this punk-hop punk rock style spoken word, with distorted guitars and raw drums.
From there on, the album is hit or miss. It hits with a vengeance on tracks like “Seaweed”, which displays some of the album’s fiercest poetic imagery. The song is an interesting juxtaposition of music and art-house underwater singing, and puts Williams’ uncanny lyrics on display. Perhaps that’s because Williams’ isn’t trying to make a statement about poetry or hip-hop with the track’s production values. Listening to “Seaweed” makes you wonder what Saul Williams might sound like teamed up with a maestro like DJ Krush.
Other team-ups on the album might leave you scratching your head. Zach de la Rocha’s chorus on “Act III Scene 2 (Shakespeare)” sounds more like a sample than something recorded specifically for the album. Also, The Mars Volta’s Isaiah “Ikey” Owens lends an organ and an ear to the murky “Black Stacey”, but it’s hard to know what to make of his contribution to this relative throwaway.
The hilarious “PG”, a seeming homage to/dis of gangsta rap, is a satire of the first order. Williams lays the track down in a fierce imitation of a certain New York hip-hop star with nine lives, and the beauty of the number will leave you scratching your head over whether the guy is propping 50 Cent up, or making fun of the way he glorifies thugishness. It’s also another good example of a song that doesn’t work as a poem on a page. The chorus, “I got a heart beat produced by God and boy it sounds hard”, is brilliant when you hear Williams say it. But read silently, it’s corny as hell.
Considering the number of filler tracks on the average hip-hop CD, or the number of awful chap books that come out each year, it’s possible to forgive Williams some of his trespasses on Saul Williams. But consider skipping tracks like “African Student Movement” and “Notice of Eviction”. It’s amusing to hear him imitate Avril Lavigne on “Control Freak”, but one listen is enough.
Saul Williams’ attempt to save hip hop is admirable, if not entirely successful. Unlike so many other MCs who claim to be the last great thing, Saul Williams is a rarity in both the musical and poetic genres he’s representing here: a hope for the future.
// Notes from the Road
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