MGF Reviews Saul Williams – The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust!

Saul Williams – The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust!
Fader Label (7/8/08)
Industrial rock / Hip-hop / Spoken word

In case you hadn’t noticed, one Mr. Trent Reznor has been a busy man as of late. Since his band Nine Inch Nails’ 2007 release, Year Zero, Reznor released a remix album of it, called Y34RZ3R0R3MIX3D, split up with longtime record label Interscope, founded his own imprint under the name of The Null Corporation, released the moody instrumental collection, Ghosts I-IV, and then the full-length album, The Slip, this past May, by way of a free download (and later as a physical release, available in stores July 22).

And that’s all within the past 15 months. But showing once again that he can still shine without taking the center stage (see previous contributions to albums by Marilyn Manson, Prick, A Perfect Circle, El-P), Reznor recently took the production helm (and brought along his good buddy and producer Alan Moulder as well) of The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust!, spoken-word artist/emcee Saul Williams’ latest album.

Williams toured with Nine Inch Nails in 2005 and 2006, and would subsequently remix two tracks for Y34RZ3R0R3MIX3D, after announcing on tour that Reznor would be producing his upcoming album. Niggy Tardust! was originally released earlier in the year just as Nine Inch Nails released the aforementioned Slip—as a free download for either 192kbit/s or 320kbit/s MP3s, with a fee of five dollars for a CD-quality FLAC download.

The Trent influence is immediately detectable from the opening seconds of the album opener, “Black History Month”, which is anchored by abrasive, throbbing chaos that will give your speakers a nice workout while setting a dark, Tricky-like tone for the set. Add the production and mixing prowess of Moulder (Depeche Mode, The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, A Perfect Circle, The Smashing Pumpkins), and we’re good to go. Williams channels Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Trent Reznor himself in what is definitely an intriguing way to kick off the album.

“Convict Colony” contains Trent on backing vocals again, as the track has a lot of the same garage-infused feel as Nine Inch Nails more recent work. Williams sings: “I was born in a convict colony / And I was torn from the land that mothered me”. A lot of rappers take a crack at singing on their albums, but not many of them are able to channel Jimi Hendrix while spitting lyrics that would make Chuck D proud.

Previous releases have shown that Williams likes to write material that challenges the listener, with themes ranging from afrocentricity to politics to making fun of other artists (50 Cent is one particular target in this set) for things other than simply being wack or a bitch. Seeing how Nine Inch Nails has embraced a more politically aware tone over the past few years, one would be remiss not to point out that perhaps Williams had a similar effect on Reznor, creatively, as Reznor has had on this album (although it may have been the mutual interest in the same matters that brought them together; I don’t really feel like hunting down that info right now, because this album demands my undivided attention). Williams was rubbing elbows with Zack de la Rocha in 2004, at the same time that Nails was releasing With Teeth, so there is some evidence of the former.

The character of Niggy Tardust (an obviously play on David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, who, incidentally, may be one of the whitest characters ever) is likely a metaphor for consumerism that has not only watered down hip-hop and its original message, but has turned fans of the genre (and William does still love h.e.r.), in its current form, into nothing more than sheep. Said sheep, while thinking that they’re supporting and/or contributing to the flourishing of the African-American culture, are really just stuffing the pockets of the fat-cat CEOs, who have turned said wack rappers into puppets (nope, not going to go there with the minstrel metaphors, because I really don’t have to).

And speaking of the aforementioned Chuck D, he shows up in the form of a sample on the break-beat-laden “Tr(N)igger”, which serves as a scalding audit of the black community that Bill Cosby and Barack Obama wouldn’t be able to do without causing a veritable PR nightmare. It shoots down the professional “victims” while calling on the community to start a real revolution.

A cover of “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, which is pretty good and considerably true to the original while bringing in enough to make it interesting, carries on the tone of the album as one U2’s early rebel songs. Williams sounds a lot like Trent in the first few bars, but soon he breaks out on his own. Watching the video alongside the track takes it a step higher, from a good track to a great one. And yes, this was directed by Trent Reznor, as I was able to tell immediately after seeing the quick scene with the cockroach.

As I mentioned earlier, the title track takes a crack at one Curtis Jackson likening him (and the whole lot of other, even shittier, mainstream rappers) to nothing more than bloated pawns of mass consumerism. Hardly nervous / Suffice to say he understands his purpose / Threshold king of everything, a comical absurdist / Sometimes when he talks he sings yet keeps his high notes wordless / Sing along when niggy sings, without you he’d be worthless / Homeless, earthless”… a brusque commentary, capped off by a name drop: “Freakshow hear him speak so properly cuz every word is / Measured against meaning, probably scheming to unlearn us / Don’t you call him by his name, white people call him Curtis”. Ouch. 50 Cent might be one rich, successful prick compared to Williams, but there’s no real riposte for that without resorting to citing record sales or number of people capped. Interesting to note… the tone of this track is similar to Nine Inch Nails’ “Capital G”, in which they accosted President Bush, and unbeknownst to many, Bush and 50 have the same birthday. I can’t make this stuff up, folks…

Potent lyrics on tracks like the murky “Break” and the Trent-cameoed “WTF!” lead into a small block of tracks that take a break from more traditionally Nine Inch Nails-sounding tracks in favor of some considerably more organic music, starting with the afro-beat-infused “Scared Money”. If this track was produced by Trent (and I can only assume it was because he’s credited as producer on every track), this is one of the most ground-breaking tracks that he’s done in a while, taking elements of Fela Kuti and Lee “Scratch” Perry and mixing them together with a dash of his own chaotic trademark sound. And considering that the track is arguably the most socially aware (calling on black women and pimps to stand up, while addressing them as equals) and powerful, lyrically, in the entire set, this was a really good choice for the production to do something in which to separate it from the rest. “Raw” and “Skin of a Drum” use more of a tribal sound, the latter an exercise in self-awareness that again has a really nice balance of organic sound and the traditional Nails sound.

And speaking of which, what would a Nails-ish album be without the obligatory, quiet piano-driven track? “No One Ever Does” offers a nice pairing with Williams’ melancholy vocals. Even when he’s not angry with the condition of the world today—in this track he’s again in an introspective mood—Williams’ tone sounds very Reznor-esque. Makes you wonder what could have been had these two met each other earlier.

For those of you who already downloaded this album when it first came out, the physical release offers five bonus outtakes not found in the original set list. “Pedagogue of Young Gods” uses the same music as “No One Ever Does”, except Williams does a straight-up spoken-word performance, which serves as a nice contrast to “No One”. “World on Wheels” shows what happens when Trent gets a hold of a Roland TR-808, and it’s the first stinker of the entire set. It should have probably stayed in the trash heap. In fact, all of the bonus tracks except for “Pedagogue” are relatively forgettable, and they are the albatross that brings the rest of it down. I understand that they probably figured that including something EXCLUSIVE on the physical release would have acted as more of an incentive to get people to purchase it, but they could have included “Pedagogue” and left it at that, perhaps offering the other four as a supplemental free download.

It’s difficult to say whether this album would have had such an impact on me had I not been a pretty big Nine Inch Nails fan coming into this. There will be people out there that will call this album “Halo 27.5”, and really, there’s nothing wrong with that. After all, Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, like it or not, was essentially a Roots album but still one of the best to come out in 2000. Yes, Saul Williams is an immensely talented writer and musician whose work is about as thought-provoking as anything released by Public Enemy or Rage Against the Machine in their respective heydays. But one cannot ignore the lush, equally-substantial production by Reznor, which exponentially complements Williams’ message. It’s a message of hope amid turmoil, just as the music is the epitome of a beautiful mess—chaotic and broken but still with an underlying semblance of confidence and order.

The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust! is easily a four-star (er, machine-gun) affair, only getting docked a half point for the unnecessary bonus tracks, but don’t hold that against the rest of the album. Buy it now. Do it because you hate 50 Cent. If you happen to like 50 Cent, well… uh, 50 Cent says to buy this album.


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