Ever since I heard Twice the First Time, I've been an admirer of Saul Williams. Seeing him on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect shortly after 9/11, further cemented his intellectual credibility with me. By the time he'd made Not In Our Name with DJ Goo and Everything is Under Control with Coldcut; he'd joined the ranks, in my mind at least, of Chuck D and Mr Lif as among the boldest, most articulate and most original voices in hip hop. Apparently Rick Rubin felt the same way producing his 2001 album Amethyst Rock Star.
As unconventional as Williams has been in the past, the Trent Reznor produced Niggy Tardust finds him trying something entirely different: singing.
The album starts with the crunchy boom bap and unmistakable Reznor bass distortion of Black History Month. In fact, Reznor’s sonic signature is all over this production- synth laden electronica with harsh industrial sounds and distortion. Lots of distortion. Rezor provides some backing vox and Williams even adopts his vocal style to some degree, and yet the stream of conscious rhymes and acerbic wit we’ve come to expect, render it distinctly Saul. This makes for a near perfect symbiosis of styles and aesthetic.
Williams has always been somewhat audacious but he’s really out done himself this time. He even has the balls to cover U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday; which actually, against all conventional wisdom, works in this context. Staying true to the original anthem while putting his own unique stamp on it (pretty much the measuring stick for a good cover) he wisely chose to loop that dope militant drum break, one of the most recognizable elements of the song. The distorted, modulated guitars slicing through William’s howl as he belts out the chorus give his version a darker more menacing edge.
This is a disarming record that simultaneously manages to punch you in the nose and make you think. And it’s refreshing to here hip hop that takes actual risks, something that was once common place. This is neither a formulaic, radio-friendly, polished turd nor a dodgy “indie” production featuring some generically monotone rapper. Williams is a real MC, complete with personality and presence.And again, there just isn’t any hip hop coming through that challenges the listener like Tardust (sorry Kanye. But not really. You’re way overrated anyway).