Bitch, I’m free / Ask these editors at MTV. Pouring from the hole Radiohead poked in the music industry’s dike, Saul Williams speaks triple entendre. The rap artiste’s line from “DNA” refers to his MTV-published poetry books and slyly suggests the rejection of the almighty beat by said network in favor of ponderous reality TV. Now, too, it advertises that “DNA” and the rest of Williams’ third album The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, like Radiohead’s In Rainbows, can be yours for no money down.
This album download is a test case for Trent Reznor, who packed up his Nine Inch Nails brand and followed Radiohead away from the major labels. The electronic rocker seems rather brave throwing his weight behind a critically acclaimed but commercially middling artist, using an unproven business model. At worst, Reznor may just want this investment to pay off at an optional $5 a pop. For the most part, it does.
Reznor supplies dense production Williams once sustained for only a (great) song or two at a time. The Public Enemy sample in “Tr(N)igger” is so overpowering that Williams damn near sounds like part of a trio. In the past Williams could fake a Chuck D or 50 Cent accent; here he and Reznor mimic each other. Saxophones sound like guitars; guitars sound like trumpets. Frankly, Reznor positions Niggy Tardust as the unofficial third NIN release of 2007 alongside Year Zero and Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D.
Still, ultimately, Saul Williams is Niggy Tardust, using deceptively complex vocab as a conduit between rock and theater. He unleashes master-class hip-hop in tracks like “Scared Money,” and in “The Ritual” recasts ghetto lifestyle as life cycle. “Black History Month” suggests permanence of the self-awareness in that namesake period (“Yo the banana peels are carefully placed / So keep your shell toes carefully laced”) over Reznor’s twisted take on Baltimore funk, while “No One Ever Does” evokes the soft soul of Roy Ayers or Gil Scott-Heron.
Niggy Tardust sometimes falls over itself with earnestness. A cover of U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” is fuzzy and unemotional, more suited for Justice than activists like Williams and Reznor. Familiar NIN-ismsâ€šÃ„Ã®moaning guitar figures, muted pianoâ€šÃ„Ã®run a bit thick here. Williams oversteps some boundaries: He retreads lyrical themes and offers hackneyed delivery that undermines stuff like “Skin of a Drum.” He’s also unaware of a bit of sad irony in music that keeps asking “Where my niggas at?” when it’s been developed in large part by a white guy from the Pennsylvania sticks.
Of course, we do have Kanye West sampling German industrial bands and French dudes in space helmets, but all he’s doing is making some decent party tracks and having them hailed as some great experiment. Warts and all, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust is a refreshing change of pace for Saul Williams, his patron Reznor, for rock, for rap, for the biz. Wanna know the next real great experiment? If Kanye would dare to bring Saul on tour.