Saul Williams is an anxious musician. He is part slam poet, part rapper, and part rocker, but his much anticipated LP, Amethyst Rock Star, does not commit itself to any one of these three genres. There are elements of each form--big-sounding guitars, electronic drum beats, and Williams' ambitious wordplay--but it never embraces these elements. Instead, he simply departs in three different directions, and the CD is vacant. It is this anxiety with self-identification that usually makes Williams' art so compelling, though it makes me sad and a little nauseous to watch it play out.
I first saw Williams as a slam poet. It was in the late-'90s, when "performance poetry" was on the steady rise, and at this slam he was stunning, truly the cream of the crop. Where other slam poets depended on loudness, aggressive shock, or funny faces to jazz up their words, Williams simply issued a string of thoughts that were intoxicating to follow. His wordplay was intricate and indulgent, displaying the command of language that defines good poets. That night he shared the stage with Allen Ginsberg, and I remember seeing the two poets offstage in an embrace, exchanging words. "Yes," I thought. "The 20th century people's poets."
With Amethyst Rock Star, Williams has attempted to make a rock album. But it's a bad one. He left the genre of slam poetry to put his words to song--and while with "Twice the 1st Time" Williams seemed to have realized the logical place for his expression is over rap tracks, the artist has now turned his back on rap entirely.
Still, Williams clearly sees himself in rap's tradition. In his songs, he makes numerous references to Rakim, and at one concert I went to, he filled time by reciting EPMD raps. This is a hiphop project, and Saul Williams is a rapper. But he is refusing to accept his fate and make wonderful raps.
I think back to the exchange of words between Williams and Ginsberg, and imagine Ginsberg telling him "Saul, don't fuck it up." Why can't sons just listen to their fathers?