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”.
You’ll find no dull or trite oratory from Saul Williams. And listening to MartyrLoserKing you can sympathise to some extent with Albarn’s view. This collection of songs is a stark contrast to much of the politically neutered output of many contemporary musicians. Within the contrast is a realisation that a great deal of what we hear is increasingly inward looking. It goes without saying that Albarn’s remarks are far from conclusive though, and that to concede fully with his claims would mean discounting the latest records of Roots Manuva, M.I.A.,Young Fathers and Kendrick Lamar. And so it follows that it’s also curious that many of those that do engage with larger issues in society tend to operate within hip hop. It’s not exclusive to that genre, but it’s a marked trend nonetheless.
The immediately redolent title of Williams’ sixth studio album is just what we’ve come to expect from him. He’s an artist well known for his social and political activism, and has been a vocal critic of the ‘War on Terrorism’ and the subsequent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; he also added his name and support to the Occupy Movement against income inequality. It’s the seemingly eternal battle between those in power and the powerless that dominates this record. Ashes is timely in its use of the vocoder heavy chorus lifted from the freshly reformed At The Drive In’s Invalid Litter Dept. It also cuts to the heart of the matter with an unambiguous declaration that “the war between the rich and poor is building”.
But Williams doesn’t rely on heavy-handed sloganeering, and is more than capable of a light touch, administering impressionistic yet prescient lyrics that are indicative of his beginnings as a spoken word poet. The haunting piano loop of The Horn Of The Clock Bike is underpinned with equally stirring observations: “Smile of the victor / Child of the prisoners / Statues of martyrs / Hackers as artists.” Whether Williams is direct or abstract, none of the power or clarity of his message is lost.
This is a record that could quite possibly see that message reach a wider audience. Williams’ previous work has, more often than not had a dark and foreboding edge, and whilst not all of that is lost, this feels more refined. The Bear/Coltan as Cotton has as hooky and rousing a chorus as you’re likely to get from Williams, and The Noise Came From Here’s wonderfully hopeful polyrhythms make it a stand-out track. The more accessible feel to this album is by no means symptomatic of Williams losing his acutely focused quest to shine a light on injustices. And you can rest assured there is still plenty of ire in the aggressive march of tracks like Roach Eggs.
Lyrically dextrous as ever, Williams takes a sanguine approach to those he opposes on No Different. Rather than aggressively stalking his detractors he makes a claim for meaningful relations: “I’ll never give up you/ even when you’re short sighted and arrogant and to selfish to be be true/ Don’t ever give up on me/ even when I’m tortured by my arrogance and too selfish to be free.” But as much as the musicality of the record mixes hope and anger, so do the lyrics. All Coltrane Solos At Once is dominated by Williams’ muscular delivery of the line “Fuck you understand me”. Evidently, Williams’ core tensions are resolutely intact.
Yet again Williams has focused his sharp eye on the political rather than the personal. If anything has changed this time around it’s that, musically at least, the hard edges have been softened. It may just mean this record finds its way onto a larger platform, which would be a fine thing. From its conception, pop music has been made by the people for the people: it must speak for every facet of our experience – personal and political. Thankfully Williams has lost none of his hunger to bang the drum and highlight society’s injustices. Music with something to say is out there; you just have to know where to look. With MartyrLoserKing, Saul Williams may have made it a little easier to find.