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.
It’s a lot less coherent sonically than it is conceptually, however. It takes Williams a good few tracks to really get going. Appropriately enough, the album comes alive on ‘Ashes’ with the line “here comes Lazarus”. Then we’re back in the grimy world of vintage Williams – menacing metronomic kick and bassy synth lines. This sets into motion a strong mid-section run where Williams platforms his diverse skills in solidly-built frameworks.
Often, however, ideas are offered without really being developed. ‘Horn Of The Clock-Bike’ sees his meter quickly get stuck in a rut over a rolling piano loop. ‘The Noise Came from Here’ takes acoustic percussion and chanting voices through a gentle climax, but it comes to little. Elsewhere, over-reliance on repetition and jerking shifts in tone and style leave passages of the album like a collection of mixtape sketches, rather than a showcase of Williams’ ability to work across a range of mediums and traditions.
It does have other strengths beyond its bold social conceit though. For all its seriousness, Williams manages to avoid self-seriousness, and his subversion can still be playful. Check out the fun line in ‘Think Like They Book Say’: “Met this girl on Monday night… purple satin bra and tights. That’s what I was wearing she was wearing red and purple”. And as ever, Williams is at his absolute best when he most fully gives himself to poetry – his tenure as spoken word artist arguably his strongest card in his varied deck. Thankfully, we get to hear that a few times, and it’s still Williams at his most commanding and visceral.
All the same, nothing hits with the same succinct and simple impact as early wins like ‘List of Demands’ or ‘Black Stacey’. Of course, compared to the staid work of his last full length, and its clumsy play for the mainstream, it’s far preferable to hear Williams ambitious, restless and angry as he is here on MartyrLoserKing. Still, it would be nice to hear his ambition translated to a record less fragmented than the society he’s reflecting.
6Russell Warfield's Score