Message with a music
Matthew Macke | Thursday, February 4, 2016
Saul Williams’ new album, “MartyrLoserKing,” is sitting in 52nd place on iTunes’ top selling hip-hop albums — even though it came out on Friday. It’s hard for me to not take that personally. Obviously, when it comes to “pop culture,” the “pop” usually outweighs the “culture,” but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
Then again, maybe that’s the perfect reception for an album “about that middle finger to the b*******,” as Williams quipped in an interview with HipHopDX.
Saul Williams is one of very few people who became known for poetry before being known for anything else. By working his way up through the slam poetry scene of his native New York, he made a name for himself with his aggressive style. That notoriety landed him a writer position and starring role in the 1998 film, “Slam.” From there, he branched out to become a sort of artistic Renaissance man: acting on stage, writing books and (obviously) making music. Through it all, though, his work never lost the feeling of righteous anger that made him a slam legend.
“MartyrLoserKing” seems to be another stop on the train of thought that started with Williams’ 2015 book, “US (a.).” That collection of poetry is the sum of several years spent traveling abroad and looking at the United States from the outside in. (The album’s title was inspired by heavily-accented pronunciations of Martin Luther King.) The book demonstrates Williams’ fascination with the Internet as a vehicle for social change, as well as his caustic criticisms of America, specifically the nation’s inability to move past racism.
“I simply wanted to experience, if only momentarily, a life free from it,” he vents in the introduction to “US (a.).”
That is the mental environment that gave birth to “MartyrLoserKing,” and it shows. Almost every track features the irritated hum of synthetic beats accenting his already forceful vocal work. The album’s single “Burundi” (released last year just prior to the election crisis in that country) is an excellent example of this formula. Williams comes out aggressively, punching out a verse over an electric whine before bringing even more energy to a chorus. In that chorus, he calls to mind the struggle of the oppressed: “Chop my neck a million times, I still burn bright and stand, yo.” Activist would not be an inappropriate label for Williams, just as musical activism would not be an inappropriate label for “MartyrLoserKing.”
That focus on social consciousness is one reason Williams’ work has been taught in schools and why he has travelled across the world giving lectures and performances. It’s impossible to listen to his music or poetry and not feel inspired to do something.
Among the strongest tracks on the record are the dance-hall reminiscent “The Bear/Coltan As Cotton,” which ends with a verse of his characteristically superb poetry, and the driving “All Coltrane Solos At Once.” On a project filled with unique gems, though, it’s almost impossible for someone to listen and not find something that gets them going.
“To the promise land,” repeats a squeaking computerized voice at the start of the first track, “Groundwork.” From that point on, every song is a performance in itself, with its own unique message and musical development. They’re not all winners, but each contains at least a few lines worth hearing. The album, like a journey to the promise land, isn’t always pretty, but it’s meaningful.
Don’t take my word for it, though. As rap legend Nas recently quipped, “Saul is every kind of great artist rolled into one. He is the best of every genre in one.”
Recommended Tracks: “The Bear/Coltan As Cotton,” “All Coltrane Solos At Once,” “Down For Some Ignorance”