Album Review: Saul Williams – MartyrLoserKing
It is near impossible to write anything truly negative about Saul Williams. His career is quite simply astonishing. From his beginnings with goosebump-inducing slam poetry performances to books published with titles like Said the Shotgun to the Head and starring as Tupac Shakur in broadway show ‘Holler If Ya Hear Me’. And not to mention, creating a highly distinct style of hip-hop which often addresses a range of social issues through genius poetics, philosophical ponderings and defiant delivery.
Sixth album, MartyrLoserKing (Williams’ first in five years) is part of a multi-media project and this album is just the first of many future steps including a graphic novel, a film and another album. As per usual with Williams, these 12 songs are a total melting pot sonically and stylistically, no doubt due in part to its genre-hopping producer Justin Warfield. It’s essentially a concept album. Concept albums aren’t very in fashion at the moment, are they? But they haven’t been since about 1976. In short, ‘MartyrLoserKing’ is the screen name of a hacker living in Burundi who becomes a virtual phenomenon until he gets labelled a terrorist. Regarding its title, it pays tribute to martyrs and losers alike. The lyrics are pervaded by themes of globalisation, economic inequality, and, most of all, the power, confusion and control of social media.
It’s obvious from the first two seconds of MartyrLoserKing that this isn’t going to be an easy ride. ‘Groundwork’ introduces us to Williams’ to his “parallel universe” with near-white noise that morphs into his familiar unsettling industrial sound. ‘Ashes’ is the first sign of his more dancey sensibilities. Subjects include police brutality (“protect and serve / your bullets won’t deliver your last word”) and the inequality gap (“the wall between the poor and rich building”) over a stupendously infectious beat.
The disjointed punch-to-the-gut of ‘Think Like They Book Say’ makes a stand against gender binary doctrine as he namedrops Keith Haring and quotes James Baldwin, the chorus stuttering “girl boy g-girl boy g-girl boy girl”. Racial intersections come in later – “think black them think gay”, “think white them think straight”. ‘The Bear / Coltan as Cotton’ illustrates the potential power of hackers in infiltrating and crushing ‘the system’; “hack into the rebellious gene / hack into doctrine / capitalism, the relation of free labor and slavery / hack into the history of the bank”, as well as the inherent paradox of social media – “people who share too much / people who seem lonely” – with all of this being maintained by an irresistible industrial funk.
Despite it being the first single, ‘Burundi’ featuring Emily Kokal of Warpaint is one of the album’s musically weaker moments. It feels bit overly-layered but maybe that’s the point: to overwhelm (“I’m a virus in your system”). Kokal’s vocals don’t seem to add that much but her presence isn’t a loss either.
As someone who spent much of last summer listening to Kanye West’s Yeezus album, when ‘Down For Some Ignorance’ begins, it feels that I am once again listening to the “greatest living rockstar on the planet”. But I’m not. This renders me feeling slightly self-disgusted that these two ‘alternative hip-hop’ artists have emulated each other inside my own mind. Most genres get grossly homogenised, but there’s something about ‘alternative hip-hop’ that leaves a lot of people just not knowing what to do with it. The timeline of such a sub-genre is fascinating and Williams has actually spoken about influencing West. But anyway, back to the song. This is a superb satire. It’s overtly seething lyrics are watered down by its style of a children’s nursery rhyme – or maybe that just makes it more eerie.
“Woke up in the morning / high off the internet” begins the unbelievably powerful ‘Roach Eggs’. Its haunting beat gives way to an post-apocalyptic wasteland underneath Williams’ totally unrelenting criticisms – “5 BILLION FOLLOWERS / I OWN THE INTERNET / MARTYR LOSER KINGDOM / ROACH EGG ECONOMY” he taunts over and over and over again. In just one listen, it’s driving me out of my mind in the best way possible. Much like the effect of the internet.
Williams breaks down the many meanings of ‘All Coltrane Solos At Once’ featuring Haleek Maul, the title coming from the effect of enclosed space of slave ships:
“The idea is that when one is already living in and through hell, day in/day out, with no end in sight, shackled to other beings, whose language you may not speak, what do you dream? No need to imagine hell when your in it, alive, still breathing, unfree. So where does the mind travel? Do you moan? Do you scream? Do you talk? Do you sing? Perhaps it was in the hull of those ships that the African-American experience was born, and every creative breakthrough, robotic dance move, explosive horn solo, breakbeat and rhyme-flow burst forth from there.”
Moreover, in the interest of the album’s theme of social media, the meandering beat saunters between a soft but stern spit of “fuck you, understand me”, summing up a myriad of existential problems, not least the internet attitude we’re taught of ‘I hope people on the internet get (read: ‘like’) the things I post but I have to also make it look like I’m too cool to really care’.
Penultimate track ‘No Different’ is basically the only personal song here, while ‘Homes/Drones/Poems/Drums’ sees a demonic keyboard and grand, urgent drumming. It’s a poignant-sounding ending and fades out abruptly, leaving the listener with very incomplete feeling. But, once again, this is just a representation of the internet, right? Any parts of this album which seem confusing, shallow, deep, oversaturated, under-saturated, incomplete, over-complete – it all makes sense in the context of how much the internet manipulates our heads. Dammit Saul, you conceptual genius. There’s no doubt, listening to this album is work. It requires engagement. It is not something to play through your ipod in the background while you sit on a bus daydreaming. It demands actual thought. (Music requiring thought? What?!) It’s one of those beautiful moments where music seems to overrule every other method of learning.
It’s surprising how relatively overlooked and under the radar Williams is. This is probably due to the fact you cannot put him in a box. Poet, rapper, actor, spoken word artist, political activist, educator… Discovering his work feels like discovering such a rare jewel of genre-twisting euphoria and infinitely quotable lyrics/poetry. And this album is no different.
Best Tracks: Ashes, Roach Eggs, Think Like They Book Say, No Different