Post-Rappers' Delight

On his likewise repeatedly postponed debut, Amethyst Rock Star, Saul Williams faces the opposite problem. New York's spoken- word scenester has a natural propensity toward proclamation. His singing voice is naturally resonant, if not wide-ranging, and his songs sound delivered from high on the mount. Neither of the Williamses (related in style, but not blood) is a technically superlative singer, but their brand of rock is all attitude. Having the gumption to grab a microphone and just wail is all the credential they need.

Amethyst is produced by original genre-fucker Rick Rubin, and where In Search Of . . . feels like the product of intimate, almost offhand studio sessions, everything on Amethyst is carefully measured. Williams's band aims for the psychedelic, and often beyond that—distorted guitars, melancholy strings, monster drums all working in furious concert. They're unfamiliar sounds to the hip-hop massive, but Saul uses his vocals as a linchpin. When he raps, his cadence is wise and intricate. When he sings, he knows how to vary his tone to catch the untrained ear.

Like the Neptunes, Saul's opposed to the current state of hip-hop as only a true fanatic can be, and wants to tease the folks in with familiar noise before unleashing the revolution on them. Amethyst is a genre answer-record, a good old-fashioned manifesto for the uplifting of the people trapped in the hip-hop muck. He opens "La La La" with bait: "Nigga you better drink half a gallon of Shaolin before you pluck the strings of my violin." Then said violin kicks dirty dirges over angry scratches, an old-school battle.

N.E.R.D. shake you all night long.
photo: Terry Richardson
N.E.R.D. shake you all night long.

Details

N.E.R.D.
In Search Of . . .
Virgin import

Saul Williams
Amethyst Rock Star
American/Island Def Jam

Saul is old-school himself, though—the most straightforward hip-hop track on the album is titled "1987" and toasts acid-wash Guess. And furthermore, saving hip-hop seems so positively ancient an idea that we no longer have any idea what it should sound like. Saul felt the burn early: "I ain't gonna lie it, be too hard to deny it/I ain't from your block and never had to deal with your shit/Never had a Glock, never kept it real with no bid."

Yet intuitively, a track like "Fearless" feels right. It's an all-out rocker, in the early-'70s vein, frail and proud all at once. Midway, just as the emotional breakdown of the song is beginning to exact its toll, Saul pauses for a confessional: "I'm no musician, but the pain has been instrumental/My senses finely tuned instruments of being lonely, of being lost, of being loved, of being human/I could use someone to talk to, but most of my conversations with men seem to revolve around music." There, in uncommonly plain language, is hip-hop's melancholy.

It's certainly a more succinct testament to it than anything else these days on Def Jam, the parent company that Saul's landed at after Rubin split his American imprint from Columbia earlier this year. But can the company primarily responsible for hip-hop's self-importance and subsequent stagnation deal with a style renegade who recently wrote of the hip-hop mainstream, "Your shit will not last. These are your last days. We are growing tired of you"? One hopes his message won't be too lost in the noise. Capitalism makes strange bedfellows, sometimes even sowing the seeds of its own destruction. So who's going to eat away at rap more quickly—the ones in it, or the ones coming afterwards? Like the Neptunes, Saul's been set loose inside the master's house. It's only a matter of time before the dismantling process begins.

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