Thursday, July 14, 2011

Saul Williams - Volcanic Sunlight

If I have to dance dance dance then it's not my revolution
Over the course of four albums, Saul Williams has established himself as a sort of David Bowie of underground hiphop, and indeed the concept of his previous effort echoed Bowie's 1972 release. But while the adjective 'chameleonic' suggests someone trying to blend in with the artistic background, Williams has always striven to swim against the tide. This time, however, he has taken his first misstep.

Amethyst Rock Star (2001) introduced us with a very 'mystical' Williams, but while I would normally avoid that kind of stuff like the plague, it was so outward-looking and non-hippyish that it was more than forgivable. Besides, he ultimately concluded that "Matter is fact/So spirit must be fiction/Science fiction/Art fiction/Meta fiction". As bling peaked in 2003, Williams took on the Bush administration with soaring radical polemics such as Act III Scene 2 (Shakespeare) while lambasting the aspirations of gangsta rap and admitting that his car was seventeen years old. In 2007, he teamed up with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails for The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!, and produced what can only be discribed as industrial hiphop.

Damn! What rhymes with 'sunlight'?
In short, Williams has been the consummate artist - mixing and matching and totally unafraid of his critical reception, or whether people were ready for what he wanted to create. It could be said that by making what's basically a dance pop album he's done that again with Volcanic Sunlight. But more than that, he's consciously decided to let the vocals take a back seat, so the great buzzing intellect that previously gave us an explosion of ideas in every song has been virtually silenced.

There's no doubting that the music of Volcanic Sunlight is hugely listenable, but I can't remember a single amazing lyric after five listens, and Williams needs to be far more than a pop star (let's face it, he's still never going to chart high, no matter how danceable he gets). Hiphop - and the wider world - needed his previous works, but do we really need quite a catchy, funky, slightly African-tinged dance album in 2011?

It would be simplistic and much too harsh to say he has sold out, despite allowing Nike to use his List Of Demands in a commercial and his enthusiastic early support for Wall Street sock puppet Barack Obama. I dearly hope Williams is just marking time here, and waiting for the next major inspiration to send him spiraling off into frenetic creativity.

I know this is a short album review, but like Saul I have no more to say at the moment.
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