Saul Williams :: Amethyst Rock Star
Label: American Recordings/Island Records
Author: Steve 'Flash' Juon
Reaction to opening this review is bound to be mixed. One group is
probably saying, "Long overdue Flash - about muthafuckin time." The other
is scratching their heads and saying, "And who the hell is this fool named
Saul? A rapper named Saul? Fuck this shit, I'm not interested."
To the latter group, I offer you this: Method Man's nom de plume is
CLIFFORD SMITH, and Ice-T's real name is TRACY MORROW.
Now if you can listen to some rapping motherfuckers named CLIFFORD
and TRACY, you've got no reason to front on a rapper named Saul.
Except well, Saul really isn't a rapper at all. Mr. Williams raps, but
he's a poet - a poet of the highest caliber. If you've seen the movie
"Slam" then you're in that first group that said "about muthafuckin time"
and with good reason. His performance as a marijuana dealer who goes
down for some "wrong place at the wrong time" shit is a virtual one man
show, a microphone solo where Williams goes for dolo. It's not just
the power of the words he offers up to his anguish but the power of his
DELIVERY in painting the words into mental images that made this
film a classic that's still never received the props it's truly due.
Saul didn't just store up all his lifetime energy and release it in one
seminally obscure movie though. Since that time he's continued writing,
recording, and just in general doing IT. You know, IT:
the art of being, and the being of making art. The obvious pun of his
album's title is that in poetry circles (such as the "Slam" of his film)
he IS a "Rock Star", although outside of those groups he may be
perceived more as an "Amethyst Rock": the quartz whose purple hues have
hidden depths that make it at first simple but ultimately inscrutable.
Williams turns out to be more the amethyst rock which is both found in the
depths and containing depths to reveal. The lyrics of "Untimely
Meditations" help him shine light into the depths of his perspective:
"The fiery sun of my passions evaporates the love lakes of my soul
Clouds my thoughts and rains you into existance
As I take flight on bolts of lightning claiming chaos as my concubine
and you as my me, eye/I of the storm, you of the sea
We of the moon, land of the free - what have I done to deserve this?
Am I happy? Happiness is a mediocre standard for a middle class existance
I see through smiles and smell truth in the distance
Beyond one-dimensional smiles and laughter lies the hereafter
Where tears echo laughter, you have to do math
to divide a smile by a tear times fear equals mere truth
that simply dwells in the air but if that's the case
all I have to do is breathe and else will follow
That's why drums are hollow.."
Williams loves to play with words, and his love of words gives him the
power to plug multiple meanings into singular forms and string them into
stream of thought conciousness; using both familiar rapping techniques
of alliteration and rhyme and abandoning them when too constrictive.
He doesn't abandon the hip-hop base though as much as he builds from it
new forms, through which he has routinely expressed love for the modern
urban griots such as Rakim and Chuck. The opening track "La La La" starts
out like an ode to the Wu-Tang Clan built on funky strings worthy of RZA
and employing hip-hop structure for his first verse:
"Nigga you better drink half a gallon of Shaolin
before you pluck the strings of my violin
My life is orchestrated, like London Symphony, concentrated
Niggaz waited and waited, I'm birthday wishes belated
Blow out the candles; I wait in the darkness, like a vandal
The sihlouette of set in the mirror, on the mantle
Fireplaces in the heart, water places the art
round the islands of desire where most primitives stalk
Sacrificin their daughters, these primordial waters
carry a feminine agenda that no man ever taught us.."
Ending the opening stanza with the refrain "out of chaos comes order,
out of chaos comes order, out of chaos comes order, FAKE NIGGAZ RUN
FOR THE BORDER" Williams is plucking everybody's cards like Kool Keith;
and only ups the ante in the second verse when he tells b-boys to be
men and says, "Why not rhyme about what y'all feeling, or not be felt?"
Williams represents this brutal honesty with songs like "Penny For
a Thought," in which he thinks about the past and says, "Niggaz used
to buy their families out of slavery; now we buy chains and links, smokes
and drinks." Ouch. What's even more poignant though is that Williams
questions what freedom would be worth, even if you COULD buy it:
"Whatcha gonna do with this freedom, talk on the radio?
Radio programming is just that, a brain washed and cleaned of purpose
To be honest, some freedom of speech makes me nervous
And you looking for another martyr in the form of a man
Here like a maid with an outstretched hand
In a world of harsh thoughts, reactionary defensiveness,
and counter-intelligence, what exactly is innocence?
Fuck it, I do believe in the existance of police brutality
Who do I make checks payable to? (How bout I pay you in prayers?)"
Listening to Saul Williams "rap" is not easy, but as he himself says,
"I could quote any emcee but why should I? How would it benefit me?"
What Williams offers is lyrics which like the greatest rap albums you
own DEMANDS to be rewound and re-examined. Each time you think
you know which way he's going or what his point is, he throws another
layer of meaning into the mix and stirs up your mind some more. Beats
and rhymes? Oh yes, on a whole different level than anything you've
yet experienced, unless you're already a fan of this genre - a form
which dates back to "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." It's even
deeper than that though - you have to really dig for this amethyst.
His song "Robeson" digs into the depths of both painful and powerful
African-American history, drawing from Paul Robeson's own outspoken
life and times for imagery and parable. Perhaps Williams sees a little
of himself in Robeson as well: relegated to an outsider's status for
failing to moderate his views or adapt to the climate in which he lives.
With songs such as his haunting "Tao of Now" featuring
Esthero, the hard rock ballad "Fearless", and his own father on the
song "Our Father", Williams eschews conventionality for the sake of
the purest artistic expression he can reveal. Having polished his
wordplay to a fine shine, "Amethyst Rock Star" is the magnum opus of a
young rapper slash poet slash musician who in revealing his depths has
only just scratched the surface of what he has yet to achieve. For
those who aren't into musical experimentation or who revel in the
more simple (but no less valid) pleasures of bitches and blunts, this
won't be your cup of tea. For those who are, it's a VERY heady
brew to slake your thirst and refresh you with each sip. For a sample
taste, rent "Slam" or visit his website at SaulWilliams.com.
Music Vibes: 7 of 10
Lyric Vibes: 9 of 10
TOTAL Vibes: 8 of 10
Originally posted: April 2, 2002