Review by Jon C. Ireson
With Saul Williams latest stream of consciousness, the beat poet, turned mystic, turned rapper, turned icon satire, turned crooner (whew!) has managed to coalesce his strengths in to an innovative and compelling piece in Martyr Loser King. Williams previous full length release Volcanic Sunlight was a hit and miss effort which saw him make a foray out of the bombastic loquacity of his roots and in to an at times awkward style of inharmonious singing. Think Kanye’s moping mess 808s and Heartbreak. Luckily, the similarities to the world’s most deluded man end there. Even when Williams is branching off in to a somewhat dubious venture, his soul is raw and the emotions are bubbling at the surface. Just listen to the cathartic bellow of ‘Explain my Heart’ and you get a voice dripping in candor and sincerity.
Cut to 5 years later. After a tour, a run on Broadway as the lead in the Tupac inspired Holler If Ya Hear Me and a lengthy tenure in the poet’s Mecca, Paris, Saul Williams has returned with his strongest album in over a decade. The brilliant linguist has been blessed with grossly talented collaborators on previous efforts (Rick Rubin, Trent Reznor) and this offering seems to prove the mettle of producer Justin Warfield, half of the darkwave duo She Wants Revenge. Martyr Loser King is that album where every divergent experiment pays off and comes together in a voice that is as eclectic as it is united.
Album opener, ‘Groundwork’ comes galloping out of the gates without a trace of drums till the 3 minute mark. The mission statement is delivered over a snaking Moog bass line and frenetic chopping guitar. Williams finds the sweet spot between the monotone metric of his early work and the emotional wailing of Volcanic Sunlight. His adapted style of sing-rapping is mean, it’s commanding, it’s the voice of a tribe leader through the talking post.
The dream bleeds in to a wash of wispy vocals, rumbling bass and classical piano samples. No sooner are you accustomed to that warm scene than you are whisked away to a land of distorted barking and snappy breakbeats. Williams is at his best when he leaves pop song structure behind and opts to paint a picture in lush, broad strokes.
Amongst the surrealist imagery, Williams political mantra is resolute. Reclaiming the ‘loser’ moniker as the triumphant convocation of the underdog. Not only shall we overcome but we’re coming to get you. Williams duets with Warpaint’s Emily Kokal on the centrepiece “Burundi’:
“Virus, I’m a virus, I’m a virus in your system
Fuck your history teacher, bitch, I’ve never been a victim
I’m just a witness, Hitler can come get this
Rabbis in Ramallah throwing burkas on these bitches”
The piece is a battlecry. Gather the gangsters and philosophers, the cogs and the cognoscente. There is an enemy to fight! Plus there are some bomb-ass beats. So that’s cool.