Music Review: Saul Williams, MartyrLoserKing

Published on January 19th, 2016 in: Current Faves, Music, Music Reviews, Reviews, Upcoming Releases, Video |

By Sachin Hingoo


“I want the politicians, police, and all who stand in the face of democracy with overzealous self-interest to know that their candle is burning at both ends and that the collective WE will never be silenced, and the more they try, the more our voices will be heard. The technology of awareness is solar powered and cannot be turned off.”

Despite creating poetry and spoken-word performances since 1995 and steadily releasing music since his 2001 album Amethyst Rock Star, there’s a consistent rawness and openness in Saul Williams’ work that’s much more typical of someone in an earlier stage of their artistic career. That’s not a knock on Williams at all; in fact, quite the opposite. Successful artists of every sort have a way of closing up and playing things a lot safer as their careers wear on, often to avoid offending the powerful and influential friends they’ve made over the years, or just to maintain a steady stream of guaranteed income. Artists like Williams have an incendiary freeness, a kind of nothing-to-lose sensibility, that allows them to take their projects down lesser-used and unique avenues. This is something that Williams has always been able to tap into, most recently on his new album, MartyrLoserKing.

MartyrLoserKing, a playful but poignant riff on Martin Luther King, is the story of a hacker with the titular screen name from Burundi, East Africa. His life begins in a coltan mine, digging for the precious substance that every one of us has nearby right now, distributing power in the circuitry of our cell phones and laptops. On “Coltan as Cotton,” Williams draws a direct parallel between these exploited miners and laborers, and the exploitation of natural resources and human labor throughout history by those with power and privilege (diamonds in Africa, cotton in America, etc).


Willians implicitly calls for a redistribution of that power to the other 99%. Tied into the idea of circuitry is that of hacker culture in general, which is the album’s biggest theme and is most showcased on what I think is the album’s strongest track, “Burundi.” It’s by these means that Williams sees a democratization of power occurring, behind keyboards and glowing screens where everyone’s voice can carry equal weight.

I realize I’ve gotten two paragraphs into this music review without really mentioning the music itself. MartyrLoserKing is a pretty sharp departure from 2011’s Volcanic Sunlight. It bears a closer resemblance, from a production standpoint, to Williams’ 2007 collaboration with Trent Reznor, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! Heavy, industrial guitars collide with distorted synths, African instruments, and classical music samples as Williams spits fire over the top. To borrow a metaphor, it’s more mosaic than melting pot; you can clearly pick out each individual element of the music as opposed to it being cacophonous.

What I find most fascinating about MartyrLoserKing musically, though, is its use of percussion, or in some cases, the lack thereof. Drawing from the rhythmic hypnosis of African drum circles, Williams seems to want to draw the listener into a trance of sorts, until you begin anticipating the next beat, and the next. And when you reach that state, Williams pulls the beat away, forcing you to engage and fill in the blanks yourself.

MartyrLoserKing prepares you for this early with tracks like “Groundwork” and “Horn of the Clock-Bike,” both of which have very little or, on the latter cut, no percussion at all. There’s definitely a clear and present rhythm, but on many tracks, you’ll probably find that it’s coming from you and not the song. This kind of engagement on a basic sensory level represents the engagement Williams demands from the lyrics and themes on the album as well, layering meaning upon meaning to create his ‘mosaic’ that cries out for you to learn more.

Williams has always done the opposite of the safe thing, always experimenting with new collaborations, subversive themes, unusual production, and non-traditional distribution models for his work. This openness to new styles and forms, clearly on display on the best of MartyrLoserKing feels like Williams’ way of hacking every aspect of music, finding new ways to access feelings, emotions, and the drive to resist accepted gender, social, and political norms.

MartyrLoserKing is due out from Fader Label on January 29. You can preorder the album on 
, Amazon, and Google Play.

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