Future rap

Saul Williams teams up with Trent Reznor
By BEN WESTHOFF  |  December 10, 2007

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EXPERIMENT! Williams (here with Reznor) categorizes NiggyTardust as “biracial music for beyond-racial times.”

“Sometimes I find it very hard to be me,” Saul Williams raps on The Rise and Inevitable Liberation of NiggyTardust!’s first track, “Black History Month.” It’s the central conflict facing the album’s title character, but it could well describe the album.

The entire NiggyTardust! project screams “experiment,” from the unlikely pairing of poet-turned-rapper Saul Williams with gothic-industrial producer Trent Reznor to its wild mishmash of genres — Williams calls it “ghetto gothic.” And then there’s the way the album is being distributed: stealing a page from Radiohead, they’re making it available only as a download, for free at niggytardust.com, though you can choose to donate five dollars to Saul if you’d like.

It would be hard to know where to file a NiggyTardust! CD in any case. “Black History Month” has both crunchy, industrial textures and a cappella refrains, plus a bit of what sounds like scat singing. “Tr(n)igger” samples Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome.” “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is a note-for-note cover of the U2 song. Although there are echoes of Nine Inch Nails throughout, the proceedings are also a departure for Reznor, who incorporates hip-hop, electronic, and rock elements, as if to prove nothing is beyond his reach.

The project isn’t completely out of character for Williams, who creates a bizarre dystopian nightmare in which our hero wrestles with his faith, his parents, and the media — a hip-hopera, if you will. “Blessed be the virgin, especially if she’s nice and thick,” he chants on “Raised To Be Lowered.” “May your first time be full of grace, respect, and not a trick/First communion/Sacred as the day you were conceived/Born in sin?/Nah, think again/Repent and disbelieve/Heaven is between your thighs/There lies the trick.”

The title character is “a modern-day futuristic hybrid being that realizes that his only enemy is himself,” Williams explains to me over the phone, adding that he’s attempting to express ideas about race that are similar to those Bowie has expressed about gender. “I would categorize it as ‘biracial music for beyond-racial times.’ It might mean that, ‘Yeah, I was born in the ghetto, but that doesn’t mean that I speak this way, or I walk this way, or I dress this way, or I only listen to this stuff.’ It’s about a hybrid mentality.”

Fans of Williams’s obscure, dramatic wordplay will find much to like on NiggyTardust! The album’s failings have more to do with Reznor’s production, which at times crowds him out. Although there are beautiful moments, like the piano-based ballad “No One Ever Does,” too many loud, grating tacks distract from the narrative. “Banged and Blown Through” is anchored by jarring drums and discordant violin riffs. The insistent guitar riffs on “Raised To Be Lowered” drown out Williams’s vocals.

Regardless, NiggyTardust! marks the meeting of two visionary minds. Reznor tells me that the album was the “coolest collaboration I’ve had outside of Nine Inch Nails . . . it gave me a chance to get outside my own head, which can get crowded at times.” It’s obvious he enjoyed the opportunity to work with Williams. Too bad the result was more fun to make than it is to listen to.

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