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Home / Articles / Music / Music Articles /  Music | Shape Shifter: Saul Williams bends and blends sound, image, minds
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Music | Shape Shifter: Saul Williams bends and blends sound, image, minds

By Randy Harward
Posted // April 16,2008 - About a month ago, Saul Williams was playing to a huge crowd in Austin, Texas. They were gathered there for a tribute to Lou Reed—an uncommon influence in the hip-hop realm. But Williams, who first burst into the public consciousness as incarcerated poet Ray Joshua in the award-winning 1998 indie film Slam, isn’t your typical hip-hop artist. Far from it.n

Beneath a sprawling white tent, Williams—face painted blue and red in an incongruous combination of Native American warpaint and something like The Jam’s target logo, prowled the stage like a pissed and passionate word-warrior. The hipster crowd, bellies sloshing with free, flavored, vitamin-enhanced bottled water is high on his every word. Like good little music bees, they’re holding down their end of Williams’ call-and-response on “NiggyTardust.”

Saul Williams: When I say Niggy, you say nuthin’. Niggy.

Crowd: (Silence)

Williams: When I say Niggy, you say nuthin’! Niggy!

Crowd: Nothing!

Williams: Shut up.

The titular track from Williams’ fifth album The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! (available for the Radiohead-esque free-or-cheap download deal on SaulWilliams.com), is less a hip-hop song than a crop circle intersection of industrial music, breakbeat and Roger Troutman’s talkbox soul. Throughout his discography, that’s how Williams rolls—not in the playful, often retro, sounds of the so-called underground/conscious hip-hop scene he’s often lumped into, but in austere sounds that underscore and serve as counterpoint to his highly poetic, intensely political rhymes. This slow-mo quasi-cacophony is a little more pronounced on Niggy ’cause it’s produced by Nine Inch Nails maestro Trent Reznor, whose contributions (he co-wrote six of 15 songs) and influence (like when Williams apes Reznor’s brooding vocal style) are so prominent that Niggy might have been a full-fledged collaboration.

Except for one thing: Williams’ words. Even when drenched in effects, they cut through the mix like a machete, provoking deep thoughts leading to profound point-of-view reorganization. The chanting fans, most of whom profess to “get” Williams, would do well to heed the message of the song they’re helping to sing. It’s about the folly of rock stardom, idolatry—specific, at least in part, to the multicolored man onstage.

Hey! NiggyTardust, here to stay! Paint him on your lunchbox or your thermos, for a fee. You might win the chance to hang with Niggy for a day! Side effects may include simply doing what you say.

So the Niggy-nothing exchange, although one of the genius call-and-responses in the history of rock, means Williams doesn’t want your worship. Nor does he want you to worship anyone else. At least not without a good reason.

Sometimes when he talks he sings, yet keeps his high notes wordless. Sing along when Niggy sings. Without you he’d be worthless, homeless, Earth-less.

“NiggyTardust,” Williams explains, “embodies the All. He fully understands that most of what we identify with under the context of identity is social construct, whether that’s race or nationality or what have you. None of that stuff is really real and he realizes that all of the bloodlines run through him, and all that is him. And he realizes that it’s not just true of him; it’s true of everybody.”

The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!, in its entirety, is dedicated to this principle. No song on the album, agrees Williams, is a quote-unquote hip-hop song. The drums might have a hip-hop feel, but the guitars and vocals might be coming from a punk or alternative direction.

“In the same way that the music bends genre,” Williams says, “the character itself bends and blends the idea of genre or boundary. ‘I’m all of these things at once, you know. As I should be.’ As everything really, truly should be.”

NiggyTardust, then, represents an increasingly aggressive divide-and-conquer mentality within our collective consciousness, but “refuses to be divided.” As well, since the Niggy construct manifests in everyone, its identity varies with its vessel. “Right now,” says Williams, “when he manifests through me, he manifests through this dark skin and this African-American experience. That’s fine. You can use those labels to box me [in] but I can transform that box into something that is beyond any simple characterization.”

Which is to leave the concept wide open, create a veritable open source Wiki-man as a template for ourselves, especially in a time when we can pluck prefabricated “selves” off the rack, ready to wear. In doing so, Williams levels the playing field by coming down off the 5-foot tall stage and putting everyone back on common ground so we might see that who we are, who he is, isn’t what we thought—and become someone better. Our heads, from presidents down to rock stars down to the wristbanded proletariat are clear up our asses while the world spins out of control. The first solution is to—forgive the reference—start with the man in the mirror.

Doesn’t that make NiggyTardust a patron saint of something?

“He’s also an angel of mercy, in that anyone who comes with the passion and insight into wanting to remedy what’s up and what’s wrong and what’s down with humanity but comes with music instead of weapons,” Williams says. “That’s the beginning of who Niggy Tardust is.

“It’s, instead of sweeping something under a rug, trying to underplay it—but be willing to overplay it for the sake of pointing out the absurdity of it all.”

Saul Williams @ Kilby Court, 741 S. 330 West, Wednesday April 23, 7 p.m. 24Tix.com

 

 
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