Release Date: Jan 29, 2016
Record label: Fader
My first inclination upon hearing MartyrLoserKing was to call it a very early candidate for hip-hop album of the year. But, the more I thought about it the more I realized this may be pigeonholing the album far too much. While Williams has always drawn heavily from hip-hop music and slam poetry in regard to his lyrics and lyrical delivery, his music has been anything but.
Actor, poet, musician, activist and writer are just some of Saul Williams’ occupations, but first and foremost he’s a rapper capable of creating work that can ignite a response in all are exposed to it. His fifth album MartyrLoserKing certainly will. 15 years since the release of his Rick Rubin co-produced debut Amethyst Rock Star, and 11 since his self-titled second album lifted him into the attentions of a wider audience, the anger towards corporations and those who abuse their power still persists at the very heart of his work, as does the beauty with which he finely blends poetry with alternative hip-hop.
Coming off his 2011 release Volcanic Sunlight -- reportedly his "pop" record, but more a conceptual art move than a possible chart-climber -- poet, rapper, writer, artist, and activist Saul Williams returned with Martyr Loser King, an album that matches his last provocatively titled effort, 2007's The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust. Here, the versatile, former She Wants Revenge member Justin Warfield replaces Tardust's producer Trent Reznor as the man who rips pop and rap music into fascinating, compressed shreds, but both Volcanic Sunlight and Williams' work on the 2Pac jukebox musical Holler If Ya Hear Me seem to influence the funky choruses and connectable bits of the album. The hooky "Ashes" gets stuck in the head like a Kid Cudi cut, although the Lonely Stoner isn't like to write something as striking as "Protect and serve/Your bullets won't deliver the last word.
The refrain of “fuck you, understand me” from “All Coltrane Solos At Once” is probably the one that will resonate most with listeners when they hear MartyrLoserKing. But another line from later in the album may very well better capture the entire mood and themes of Saul Williams’ latest project to greater effect. It’s the lyric, “Don’t ever give up on me, don’t ever give up on me / Even when I’m tortured by my arrogance and too selfish to be free” from the trenchant “No Different.” And it’s important because it seemingly is Williams speaking to and about himself, but also tapping into the inner dialogue and struggle of his audience.
MartyrLoserKing is Saul Williams' latest effort to examine the societal disconnect by way of speaking truth to power. Part of a multimedia project (which includes a play and graphic novel), it's based on the story of a hacker in an impoverished nation state; the album bats around the theme of hacking the consciousness to re-examine the dysfunctional world around us. The wilfully genre-agnostic Williams is best defined as a slam poet attuned to specific musical influences — rap, soul, punk — who is all about challenging society to question itself, its leaders and its systems.
In 2015 Damon Albarn attracted a not insignificant amount of criticism for comments he made regarding the new generation of pop-stars, or the ‘selfie generation’ as he referred to them. That pejorative was reflective of Albarn’s view that new artists are too self involved and unwilling or unable to engage with society and politics. In his view these artists have been reduced to “talking platitudes”.
Eighteen years ago, Saul Williams introduced himself to the world by chanting, "I don’t rhyme on track." He’s largely kept that promise. Though bred in New York’s '90s spoken-word scene, and prone early on to shouting his verse in a declamatory speech rendered like cipher freestyle, he quickly transitioned into a career that resists easy categorization. His underrated 2001 debut, Amethyst Rock Star, summoned the ghosts of the Black Rock Coalition and Living Colour; his incendiary 2007 collaboration with Trent Reznor, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!, spun from Public Enemy-inspired industrial hip-hop to a cover of U2’s "Sunday Bloody Sunday." Still, Williams remains a poet at heart.
MartyrLoserKing offers an updated vision for liberation in the digital age. Saul Williams has always shown soul for social justice, but his music has rarely been so explicit in its focus. It’s a concept album, written from the perspective of a computer hacker starting a revolution. Early singles were released with accompanying essays about the wealth gap, weakened unions and the elitist 1%, and here he explores the mixed good of the internet, and its impact on oppression.
2015 was the year hip-hop grew up… again. But ever since 2001’s Amethyst Rock Star (even five years prior, during his time as a slam poet of some repute), Saul Williams has been a long standing political activist, poet and musician, part of the lineage of Afrofuturists, and MartyrLoserKing is a cybernetic update of the struggle for civil liberties which has reared its head in America, across the world and online, once more. The lyrical themes are ambitious, attempting to tie together Trayvon Martin to Edward Snowden to the Arab Spring, with lead track Burundi (featuring Warpaint's Emily Kokal on backing vocal) swiping virtual into reality with ‘hacker, I’m a hacker runnin through your hard drive,’ proclaiming that the 'we' of the underground is on the precipice of power.
You know it’s a good year when there’s not one, but two jazz releases making the rounds outside of jazz circles for the right reasons. We miss great music all the time, and three months into 2016, there’s already subversive hip-hop, classic-rock revival and navel-gazing indie worth catching up with. And jazz of course. Here’s nine records of all stripes that you need to hear yesterday.
The latest album from poet, MC, and activist Williams is a Molotov cocktail aimed directly at our complacent, social media-obsessed culture numbed by easy distractions. While Kanye frets about his shrink’s kids and crashed Maybachs, Williams puts rappers and listeners on notice: Dig deeper, people. The album’s concept of an antihero hacker in Burundi is an allegory for the artist’s obligation to subvert convention and seek the truth.
MartyrLoserKing is the online screen name of a fictional hacker from Burundi, whose story Saul Williams tells on his new album (as well as in a companion graphic novel and, potentially, a film). The multimedia approach and overt politics aren’t unusual for Williams, as well known as an actor, poet, spoken word artist, activist and author as a musician. He uses a variety of mediums to explore the poetry and romance of revolution, and prefers to adopt characters to tell stories than to lecture about politics.