Saul Williams is neither a rock 'n' roll singer nor an emcee. Instead, the Brooklyn artist is one of a few performers who exist on both planes—part poet, part musician, all superstar. He's an outspoken musical enigma who blazes new trails, even if he has to scorch the very earth he walks upon in the process.
Much like a certain British band who captured the media's attention with the grand gesture—or publicity stunt—of charging whatever the listener wanted to pay for their latest album, Williams takes a similarly unorthodox approach with his latest, the conceptual The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! The album's availability is limited to two choices—a free download, or a supportive $5 download that goes directly to Williams himself, a method of acquiring music that tells as much about Williams as it does the listener. The album, made in collaboration with Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, feels right at home alongside the revolutionary idea that the music industry is little more than a sinking vessel, and survival will come to those who boldly find new ways to distribute their music and be heard. Via email, Williams explains how the concept was conceived long before In Rainbows. "Trent was brainstorming on a 'free' release concept from as early as I remember. Way before Year Zero. Radiohead is always inspiring, though. I love those guys in a way that I can only relate to revolutionary leaders or golden-era rappers."
Part of Williams' appeal is that he came to music via the back door. He wasn't nursed on the posterized icons, the rock star dreams, or the romanticized garage days of teen youth. Instead, music is just the natural evolution of his days spent in the slam poetry scene (he starred in the poetry-themed indie flick Slam). His role onstage in front of a mic—from poet to emcee to rock frontman—has barely changed over the years. Instead, his music is often little more than a thumping backbeat to myriad poetic words he dispenses at a rapid fire and urgent pace. Says Williams, "The back door I entered through was reserved for coloreds only. My generation calls that door hiphop. Poetry expanded my definition of hiphop and of life in general. We are all rock stars, but in order to see the light, you gotta be it."
Of course, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation is far from a perfect record. It's choppy and fractured, a difficult listen, no matter with which camp—poetry, hiphop, or rock—your allegiances may lie. Reznor's presence also clouds the production in a murky, if not dated, digital wasteland of dark industrial beats that distract from Williams' prose. This tattered middle ground is the best, and worst, part of the record, the uneasy balance between two worlds that rarely coexist in harmony—hiphop and rock 'n' roll. Williams adds, "They fused beautifully at the inception of hiphop. But popular music, not just hiphop, has been dumbed down in recent years by a retro evolution of consciousness that saw money as the ultimate power." He continues, "As Jay-Z said, 'I dumbed down my lyrics to double my dollars,' but the sales are not the only thing that doubled. So did ignorance. But now, times are different. The corporate hegemony is a thing of the past. Even kids see through it. Even you and me. Hiphop and rock belong together."