Williams rises above peers on 'Tardust'

By Mario Puig for The Daily Cardinal on November 13, 2007

Certain people have a way with words that can’t be taught or imitated, an ability to teach lessons and illustrate higher truths in an eloquent fashion while remaining relatable to all who listen. Most of accessible hip-hop does not feature people like this. Saul Williams is an exception, and The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust! is a great example of why he’s in the top tier of hip-hop artists.

After forming a following with his work as an open mic poet in New York in the mid-’90’s, Saul became involved in the hip-hop scene, eventually working with people like Rick Rubin and Zack de la Rocha. Known for his lyrical prowess and wise insight on a number of issues, Saul released a self titled album (2004) and Amethyst Rock Star (2001), both of which made him fairly prominent in the world of underground hip-hop. His material is primarily social commentary, and occasionally autobiographical.

Niggy Tardust is Saul’s third album and has been released as an online download in the ‘pay what you want’ format, drawing obvious comparisons to Radiohead. Saul chose Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) to be the producer after the two became friends while touring together, and Reznor’s influence on the album is realized almost instantly on the first song, “Black History Month.” A tremulous and fuzzy synth-line sets the platform of the track as Saul breaks into verse that, for him, is unusually slow and boastful. Just when it looks like Saul might have lost some of his vocal fire, a shout of “The banana peels are carefully placed/So keep your shell-toes carefully laced” triggers perhaps his loudest and most chaotic chorus yet.

By utilizing rock and industrial elements and singing as much as he raps, Saul has distinguished himself from the rest of hip-hop, and the addition of Reznor’s production to that has had great results. An example is the album highlight “Convict Colony,” where urgent drumming and a soaring synth verse perfectly complement Saul’s wailing vocals before a swarm of chirping electronics in the breakdown creates one of the trippiest soundscapes hip-hop has ever witnessed.

Saul displays the extent of his vocal talent best on his cover of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Covering this song is out of the question for nearly all musicians, not to mention hip-hop artists, but Saul puts forth an impressive vocal effort and does a fantastic job of presenting a unique interpretation of a timeless track. The rest of the album sounds like a combination of Saul’s self-titled album and Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile.

It’s easy to point out that Saul Williams is musically superior to most of his hip-hop peers, but his messages are too complex to be analyzed in an album review. Saul is in an entirely different universe from most others when it comes to lyrics and enthusiasm for art. Niggy Tardust has great music, great rapping and beautiful singing, proving Saul Williams to be an artist who deserves far more recognition.

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