Saul Williams

Saul Williams

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Critics have a hard time deciding what to call Saul Williams' music -- poetic hardcore, "punk-hop." It certainly isn't straightforward hip-hop by any means. On his self-titled album, Williams moves toward a slightly more accessible format (compared to his previous, more poetry driven work) with twisted guitar lines, heavy bass thumps, and a closer stab at singing from time to time. The album opens with poetry laid over a fairly sparse piano riff, then moves into a swooping, thumping bit of electronica where Williams nearly takes on a Prodigy-type sound with his vocal swagger. Where the opening track laid poetry over a sparse track, Williams' stinging telegram to hip-hop is poetry laid over a dense, dense sound à la Public Enemy's Bomb Squad. Zack de la Rocha shows up to lend a hand on a slightly more stripped down, and yet more straightforward, piece of hip-hop perhaps, an indictment of the Iraq war and its subsequent issues -- a modern, though less melodic, What's Going On. "List of Demands," an outstandingly frenetic piece (somewhat ironically appropriated by Nike), manages to build tension gradually, then hits that elusive perfect single beat at the opening to each break. "African Student Movement" uses a backbeat to produce something that might have fit into a stray Busta Rhymes album, but with what might be a Fela sample thrown in before it builds into a full-fledged chant. There's a little bit of a subtle Outkast vibe in "Black Stacey," a slurry cadence in the beat-heavy "PG," and an interesting interplay between plaintive cries of lyrics and a deep, minor structure in "Surrender." Amid some squawking, "Control Freak" mixes a hard snare with fairly sparse vocals. After one more run of spoken word poetry, the album ends on a somber note with "Notice of Eviction," which once again ramps up to a denser sound before it finishes. The album, like Williams in general, is difficult to categorize. However, that difficulty to categorize is symptomatic of a wider variety of sound. Essentially all of the lyrical content is built upon Williams' poetry, largely sociocultural commentary and protest. What that poetry is laid over, however, is a wild variety of sound, from sparse to dense, droopingly slow to frantically fast. It's not mainstream hip-hop as much as an outright rejection of the excesses and lack of attention in much of contemporary hip-hop. Despite being more mainstream than his previous work, this one isn't going to be grabbing people from the radio. Once it gets a listen though, it's likely to seduce listeners and turn them into fans.

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