I could pretend like I haven’t already been talking about this album all over the internet for the last two months, but that’d be an insult to your intelligence and, more likely, it’d be a humbling experience for me, because you’d be all, “But, Ben, I didn’t even know you were on the internet talking about anything.”
Internet fame is a motherfucker.
Anywho, back in 2004 or so, my dude Nathan Singer hipped me to Saul Williams. The first thing I heard was the self-titled album that features “Black Stacey” and “List of Demands (Reparations).” I say it features those songs, but it’s important here and now to declare that there are no bad songs on that album. It is relentless and driving and the kind of hemoglobin kerosene that wakes the dead. If you don’t know that album, you might consider listening to it here before reading the rest of this review. Or don’t. I’m not assigning homework to anybody.
It’s hard to classify Saul Williams.
Poet. Activist. Actor. Musician. MC. Artist. Dude is versatile when it comes to getting his message from his brain to your sensory receptors.
Williams’ most recent album, Martyr. Loser. King. is, not surprisingly, also hard to classify.
It is burning and urgent while somehow also remaining distant. At the risk of sounding so vague as to be meaningless, I think I’ve come up with an adequate metaphor for the experience of listening to Martyr. Loser. King.
Imagine yourself on the edge of a forest at night. You’re by yourself, but you’ve also got the feeling that you’re not alone. You walk into the forest, unsure where anything is, unencumbered by a path, and once you are in deep enough that getting out isn’t an easy proposition, you hear a scream. Was it aggressive? Threatening? A cry for help? You don’t know. But you can’t get out of the forest, you’re by yourself, but you know you’re not alone, and you’re trying to make sense of somebody/something else’s desperation.
In reading interviews with Williams about the album, he explains that it is, in part, a concept album about a hacker in Burundi who has assembled a super hacking machine with the discarded scraps of American computers shipped to African landfills.
I’ll accept that conceit and examine forward from it. I’ll also hearken back to the forest metaphor I was teasing out earlier. If we understand the forest to represent the internet and we understand that the source of the scream is a hacker, we’re left to wonder what the hacker is saying. Is there excitement for being connected to the previously inaccessible network of the larger world? Is there condemnation for the havoc already cluster-bombed? Is there a cry for help? Is there anything stopping us from understanding all three of them to be true at once?
But then you get startled by the idea that maybe the voice you’re hearing is you. And not you. That it reminds you of how interconnected we are as Life, and how we are also fractured. The screaming becomes a mirror. Becomes the soundtrack to our reflection. Our complicity and our hurt on full display, even if we can’t raise our eyes to look. It is the story of suffering everywhere.
In the beginning of the video for The Noise Came from Here things get visually abstract, scenes from a Dali nightmare, before Williams and two other men end up on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, ultimately ending up circling the pavement where Michael Brown died–a different kind of nightmare.
Therein lies the power of Williams to send us whiplashing between the abstract to the literal concrete of our shared experience.
Maybe more than any other artist I know, Saul Williams is capable of making the attentive audience uncomfortable. Other artists may try to shock or tug at heart strings or manipulate anger out of thin air. But Williams is working on another level entirely. There is no interest in superficial emotional resonance, but a journey to the heart of the matter. To the core. Where things burn at thousands of degrees and do not spare the audience or, given the emotion Williams displays in live performance and video, the artist himself.
Standout tracks: Burundi, The Bear/Coltan as Cotton, Roach Eggs, Homes/Drones/Poems/Drums
This is not an album of a dozen songs with catchy choruses. This is not light listening. It is an immersive experience that demands a close examination. Repeated listens will unearth new discoveries with each subsequent strike of the shovel. It may be in the instrumentation, it may be in a turn of phrase. It may be in what gets stirred internally in the gut. It is an album for these conflicted and hyper wrecked times that offers no easy solutions, but raises necessary questions. Not everybody will love it, but everybody should listen to it.
If somebody tells you that Saul Williams is from the future and the past and that he is one hundred voices coming from one throat unbound by geography, believe them.
Here’s the official video for the song Burundi.