Saul Williams : Amethyst Rock Star

Hip-hop poet's dense offering

The man’s a poet. It’s both a pleasure and an obstacle, this unrelenting lyricism of Saul Williams’; the reason why his is a great voice in hip-hop and the reason why his debut album is such difficult going. Every phrase on this record comes freighted with meaning, every track creaks under a novella’s worth of wordplay. Stories, hallucinations, apologies: they all run together in a stream of consciousness that’s awesome to behold, and a bit much to take in.

Produced by Rick ‘Def Jam’ Rubin, ‘Amethyst Rock Star’ is an ambitious collision of rock, hip-hop and spoken word, all united by a refusal to conform to the conventions of any of them. And his spectacular voice: alternately furious (‘LaLaLa’, ‘Om Nia Merican’), soulful or hypnotic (pretty much everywhere else), it pulses through every word on this record like a living thing.

And then there’s the man’s keen mind: restless, hallucinatory, accusative. Not for him the easy clichés of the hip-hop experience: ‘Penny For A Thought’ details how the pornography and ultraviolence of [I]”keeping it real”[/I] are no less real than love or consciousness. But he constantly returns to the [I]”yes yes y’alls”[/I] and [I]”motherfu**ers”[/I] of rap’s history like a backbeat. As the hip-hop goes, ‘LaLaLa’ is terrific, with nagging strings and roomy breaks soundtracking a vehement spew of rhyme. ‘Coded Language’, Williams’ collaboration with DJ Krust, is heavier going: [I]”Whereas breakbeats have been the missing link connecting the diaspora community to its drum-woven past…”[/I] but triumphal in its intelligent anger and bristling musicality. ‘Om Nia Merican’ fuses guitars and hip-hop anger in a way totally alien to Limp Bizkit. The rest is a little less compelling. Poems like ‘Tao Of Now’ or ‘Untimely Meditations’ bear the annoying boho taint of the Nu Yorican coffee-house. He goes on about his daughter a lot too.

It’s a moving and intense album, but like many Renaissance men (he’s also an actor, a prize-winning poet and screenwriter) the dizzying variety of Williams’ ideas and modes of expression don’t always add up to an inspirational result. And all that language can get in the way of a point.

Kitty Empire