Iâ€™ve blogged on this album a few times already, but that was all about the distribution concept and not about the content. Upstate N.Y.â€™s Saul Williams, best known for his impressive role in the 1998 film â€œSlam,â€ chose to give his latest release away, just like Radiohead. Record execs, you may recall, scoffed at Radioheadâ€™s effort saying that the band had already benefited from a decade of major label backing by developing a fanbase. So Saul, an underground backpacker with a small following and a few shots on MTVâ€™s Subterranean, put that theory to the test. I donâ€™t know how successful itâ€™s been, but in my case I downloaded the record for free. Then I finally listened to it. I went back, downloaded it again, and this time I paid for it. (Those who pony up at least $5 benefit from 320kbps MP3 version or lossless FLAC version.)
Saul Williams, an artist in the tradition of The Fugees, Lyrics Born, Blackalicious, BDP, and the like, pushes the boundaries of his chosen genre, at times impinging on Rage Against The Machineâ€™s style of angry protest (â€œSunday Bloody Sundayâ€ and â€œBlack History Monthâ€) and others sounding vaguely like Lenny Kravitz (â€œSkin of a Drumâ€). Expertly produced by Trent Reznor, another artist who has turned his back on record labels The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! is sometimes as awkward and uneven as its title.
Overall, it sometimes feels bloated, but occasionally it is downright brilliant. On the bad side, the use of a Public Enemy sample in Tr(n)igger comes off as tired and overdone, and there are one too many songs with the same exact flow and tempo (Iâ€™d nominate â€œRaised to be Loweredâ€ as a song that should have been
left off the record), suggesting that Saul is more of a writer than a rapperâ€”these songs can come off as spoken word, making the music all but irrelevant.
But on the other hand, the NIN backbeat on â€œThe Ritualâ€ is fresh and fascinating. Other than The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Iâ€™ve never appreciated industrial rap, but Saul pulls it off quite wellâ€”perhaps because youâ€™d expect his black-power lyrics to be an ill fit for this supremely white genre, and yet he makes it work. â€œBreakâ€ is another example of this, while his cover of U2â€™s Sunday Bloody Sunday breaks racial barriers in another way. Another standout track, the fast-paced tribal rhythm of â€œConvict Colonyâ€ is catchy and soulful.
As for brilliance, look for the call-and-response on â€œNiggy Tardust,â€ a Prince-like grimey funk song that actually makes use of the â€œNâ€ word interesting. (Whoâ€™d have thought that after all these years of the word being dropped indiscriminately in just about every rap song on the radio, it could still have political charge and impact?)