Busdriver: Cosmic Cleavage (2004)


Like Tigger on Red Bull.

Purchase this album: Amazon 

THE SCENE: In 2002 the supremely abstracted emcee Busdriver released his critically acclaimed second disc Temporary Forever, a sonic snapshot of his madcap visions and theatrical flow. Trading the standard boom-bap for jazz licks he returned in 2004 with the dada-esque European-only Cosmic Cleavage.

You know that kid in first grade who wasn’t supposed to have sugar because it made him hyper?If that kid was a rapper, this is the album he would have made. Busdriver approaches the mic as if every rhyme could be his last, so he raps at breakneck speeds, croons at different pitches and frequently gasps for oxygen, usually all within the same phrase. And with his gift to free associate without an internal censor, his raps ricochet from one subject to the next like a room filled with hundreds of tiny active Spongebob superballs, a thunderous multicolored non-stop shower of energy.

The brilliance of Cosmic Cleavage is the appending of his cartoonish raps to the type of jazz that was actually used in cartoons, circa 1940. The screeching and sleazy horns of the title song evokes wolves in zoot suits brandishing oversized tommy guns down at the speakeasy. Busdriver’s rubbery cadence on “Kev’s Blistering Computer Tan” mimics Popeye’s broken down jalopy, valiantly failing to move its mismatched tires before crashing into a rusty, dust-pooting heap.

Cosmic Cleavage is a concept album on mating and dating. “Nagging Nimbus ” touches on divorce, his trumpet-like voice nearly blending in with the horn section. He’s surrounded by 300 rpm rubber ducks in the girl-focused “Beauty Supply And Demand”, and he works up some unique macking in the demented tango that is “Unnecessary Thinking”.

Constantly changing voices he becomes the ringmaster and tightrope walker of his own animated circus cabaret during “She-Hulk Dehorning The Illusionist”. Can he finish his rap before he runs out of air? Only on the Soul Coughing sound-alike “Pool Drowning” does he relax his one man Muppet Show vocal acrobatics, but it’s merely the eye of his clownish hurricane.

THE FALLOUT: Much like Ren & Stimpy cartoons, Busdriver is an specialized taste, and the tastemakers who flocked to Temporary Forever dropped the increasingly oddball Cosmic Cleavage like the proverbial 16-ton weight. He bounced back the following year with the easier-to-swallow Fear of a Black Tangent.

Cosmic Cleavage is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

Unhinged and unmedicated, Cosmic Cleavage rolls you inside the many cerebral folds of Busdriver’s cortex, and shows you what he’s made from.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Meet dUg (sic).

Georgia Anne Muldrow: Olesi: Fragments of an Earth (2006)


Fresher than a gumbo popsicle.

Purchase this album: Amazon 

THE SCENE: In spite of the nearly infinite song possibilities of both jazz and hiphop, I find jazz-hop to be universally underwhelming. (Except for this one, but you knew that already.) Usually one genre is sprinkled on top of the other like salt on a bagel, resulting in either jazz songs with with b-level raps or hiphop songs with acoustic bass loops. Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” is one of the few classics of both genres, and even that track is rap-free.

But vocalist and producer Georgia Anne Muldrow took a completely different angle, puréeing the surrealistic essences of both free jazz and hiphop beat chopping, whipping up the freaky soufflé into her debut album Olesi: Fragments of an Earth.

If The RZA remixed Jill Scott but left the tracks in the oven to melt, that’s but a morsel of this albums’ sound. Muldrow’s jazz-scented vocals are layered frosting-thick but it’s her plate of rhythms that’s the real standout. Every song has a woozy bottom of micro-beats that ripple up like Ovaltine chunks, rendering the standard 4/4 beat undanceable and unrecognizable, yet totally fascinating.

Sandwiched between these slices are a buffet of musical styles, all of which get blended and stewed. The hemp-filled “Radio WNK” rolls in some reggae, its drums sounding like groceries dropped to the floor. The funk reduction “Birds” percolates on chocolatey bass pops and tin can hits. “Melanin” seasons an electronica soup with some fierce jazz scatting.

Muldrow reaches an apex of sonic collage with her unique social report “New Orleans”. With it’s first lines (“Murderer…Humans left alone to die”) it’s a devastating menu of marching snares, pianos smears, and anger. You can smell the fear and confusion of watching a town sink under the flood waters, and the taste the rage of indifferent government support.

Her only nod to mainstream music is with song length, as nearly every track is a bite-sized two minutes. Just long enough to get some radio spins. Er, not.

THE FALLOUT: Reviews were decidedly mixed: critics who appreciated dope-fiend beats (like hiphop writers) tended to be kinder than one who didn’t (like indie rock writers). Sales were minimal. Although she’s released some collaborative material since, she has yet to release a follow-up album.

Olesi: Fragments of an Earth is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

A skillet full of spices, sauces and steam, Olesi: Fragments of an Earth is a full-course meal for the challenging palate.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Mr. Busdriver’s Wild Ride.

Q-Tip: Open (2004 but unreleased)


Record company people are still shady.

THE SCENE: When we last left Q-Tip in 2001, Arista Records refused to release his album Kamaal The Abstract, deeming his ambitious fusion of hip-hop, jazz & rock “uncommercial”. I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Record Exec: “I don’t think this album is going to sell.”
Q-Tip: “But every album I’ve made has sold over half a million units, including all the Tribe Called Quest albums.”
Record Exec: “You were in A Tribe Called Quest?”
Q-Tip: (says nothing in return, makes note to call J Records.)

After negotiating a release from his label, Q-Tip moved to J Records where in 2004 he refined Kamaal‘s breakthroughs with the abstract grooves of Open.

Melting the melodic expressiveness of jam-rock into the cadence and form of hip-hop, Open is a confetti explosion of re-interpreted sounds. Q-Tip’s treble flow retains its tap dancer grace, but his usual sunny self is shaded with caution and abandonment. He’s also singing again, but he’s given near duet status to guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, who drops prominent chunks of jazz-metal riffs over the live band.

“Johnny Died” crystallizes Q-Tip’s manifesto, as he raps over a headbopping beat in 6/8 time, playing slip-n-slide around the guitars’ ragged pogoing. The sneaky, circus-like riffs of “Black Boy” crunch greasily like fried chicken as Q-Tip’s sweetly paranoid vocals peel back the carnival curtain:

Be careful of the thing you say
Or they’ll tow your black butt away
Be careful ’bout how you roll
They’re gonna say that you’re outta control

Anyone expecting traditional rap songs on this album will also think he’s outta control with his blues jam “Feelings” and the spidery, climaxing 9/4 rhythm of “Where Do You Go?”. The tracks get groggier and drowsier in the rapidly detuning “Late Mornin'” and the constantly rewarping “I’m Not Gone Have It”. He finally collapses, sinking into the magenta mud of “Lisa”, his melancholia telegraphing the beginning of a romance’s end:

When I woke up in the morning
I still felt it in my bones
Because I think about that morning
When I called you at your home
I told you about my rough times
And you rushed me off the phone
Was it because you didn’t really care
Or because you weren’t alone?

A tour de force of grand experimentalism, with sharp lyricism and tight beats. What could go wrong?

THE FALLOUT: J Records refused to release Open, deeming his ambitious fusion of hip-hop, jazz & rock “uncommercial”. I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Record Exec: “I don’t think this album is going to sell.”
Q-Tip: “But every album I’ve made has sold over half a million units, including all the Tribe Called Quest albums.”
Record Exec: “You were in A Tribe Called Quest?”
Q-Tip: (says nothing in return, makes note to call Universal/Motown Records.)

Q-Tip eventually decamped to Universal/Motown, where he recorded Live at The Renaissance in 2005, which also remains unreleased. On November 7 he’s scheduled to release a reworked version called The Renaissance, making it his first solo joint in 9 years. As this is the same date as the most important presidential election in American history, will anyone even notice?

Open remains unreleased, but you can sample tracks here:

Throbbing with human fraility, Open ushers in a stillborn musical genre, one too un-regimented for an official airing.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Step aside, Larry Graham! Dorothy Ashby plays her funky…koto?

Shock G: Fear Of A Mixed Planet (2004)


The G stands for “green”.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: On the face of it, the mere existence of a Shock G solo album sounds preposterous. He’s the face and voice of Digital Underground as well its the main songwriter, pianist, producer, illustrator and conceptualist — possibly even its personal chef and Pilates trainer — so one would assume a group created in his image would fulfill all his musical needs. Yet the hedonistic, über-player atmosphere of D.U. are a poor fit for creating songs that aren’t about macking, so seventeen years after the comical Sex Packets came the decidedly more thoughtful Fear Of A Mixed Planet.

Shock’s remade himself as a progressive environmentalist, concerned with respecting mother earth and its inhabitants, which brings a new clarity to his humor. He pokes fun at racism in the glossy, nougaty “Who’s Clean” by simply questioning the insanity of color names:

How come Black Russians ain’t black?
Black rhinos are grey.
White liquors’ clear.
Blue corn chips are brown.

Like a latter-day Aztec, Shock also gives multiple shout-outs to the sun. The sandpaper and fog beats of “Sunshine Rime” surround warm verses about “the balance of life”. “Your Sun Iza Pimp” goes a step further in homage to the Great Gaseous Player in the Sky, dropping science about photosynthesis while questioning “Who taught him how to shine that?”

Unafraid to expose his less-then-sensible sides, he affixes dirty playground rhymes to the rhythms of a computer error in “The Rime In The Mochanut”, while sweating through the embarrassment and fetal regression of a traumatically bad drug trip in the paranoid “Baby You Okay”.

The penultimate song for me is “We’re All Killaz”, where Shock free-associates with whatever enters his twisted mind. A reversed keyboard squiggle squirms through an onslaught of in-jokes, non-sequiturs and random questions, as if corkscrewing through to the cortex of his ever-questioning brain:

Astronomers discovered another galaxy the other day
and this is what they had to say
“We’re happy cause it’s only a million light years away.”
(pause) WHAT?

What indeed.

THE FALLOUT: “What?” was also the commercial response to Fear Of A Mixed Planet. Released on indie 33rd St. Records (which I believe went out of business soon after), Planet was not well marketed and subsequently flatlined. Shortly afterwards Shock G announced his complete retirement from the recording studio.

Fear Of A Mixed Planet is still available from Amazon, and you can sample tracks here:

Melodic, holistic and iconoclastic, Fear Of A Mixed Planet is the blueprint of how to mature in hip-hop. Whether hip-hop has a place for a mature artist is anyone’s guess.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Fela releases an album so uppity that it actually results in death.

Carl Hancock Rux: Apothecary RX (2004)


C’mon, ride the train.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: Ever ridden the subway in New York? As part of a massive international city New York’s subway trains are loaded with folks from different lands and cultures, and if all of the riders of a single subway car decided to play music together during their travel, it might sound like the music of writer Carl Hancock Rux.

Rux composes beautiful poems, novels, operettas, plays and songs. In 1998 The New York Times deemed him one of the mostly likely people to artistically influence his generation, an appellation that did not help the sales of his first album Rux Revue, which confounded his labels’ promo team and flatlined. Five years later he released his followup, 2004’s magical Apothecary RX.

Rux’s restless baritone resonates with tobacco and absinthe, as if he’s seen too much and felt not enough, while it steadies and slices through his electronica-enhanced Middle Eastern and Southwestern-tinged songs.

The balletic bass and simmering cymbals drive “I Got A Name” into a tapestry of hidden piano and peek-a-boo choirs, where Rux gives thanks to the Lord while riding the beat like Hannibal on an elephant’s back. “Me”, his ode to his ongoing self-acceptance, jangles with delta-twang and continental buttery piano.

Rux clearly has someplace to be, as most of these songs find him mid-journey. Over a whistling percussion engine the church-like “Eleven More Days” eloquently encapsulates the joys of traveling homeward. The arid “Trouble Of This World” moves more like a sprint through the jungle after the firing of a warning shot, as native drums scare away the screaming guitar macaws.

He drops the ancient future beats for “Fanon” and kicks it super-old-school with wispy layers of cello, violins and melancholy. It’s the perfect song to play when you hear that your new album bricked…

THE FALLOUT:…which is exactly what happened. Four-star reviews yet four dozen copies sold. Rux vaulted to a new label and released Good Bread Alley two weeks ago. Let’s see if the music world has caught up to him yet.

Apothecary RX is available worldwide from Amazon, and you can sample tracks here:

Like a massive cup of Turkish coffee, Apothecary RX is strong, black, international and not for everybody. But if you like Turkish coffee, it’s very appealing for an exotic train ride.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Her name is Res, which rhymes with “peace”. No wonder you haven’t heard of her.

Blackalicious: Blazing Arrow (2002)


Fire at will.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: Ever had really awesome French toast? Crunchy yet supple slabs of thick golden brown with steam rising between its buttery layers? So yummy you even bragged to your friends about your unexpected good fortune? French toast is so simple to make yet difficult to make great.

Bay Area natives Blackalicious are the musical equivalent of great French toast. After turning heads in 2000 with their independently released Nia they vaulted to a major label for their next album, the tasty Blazing Arrow.

Filled to the brim with hard hipster soul, producer Chief Xcel tastefully laced the tracks with the shocking sounds of real instruments. Emcee Gift of Gab’s flow is thick like maple syrup yet speedy like a NASCAR driver, easily twice as fast as the usual rapper with four times the internal rhymes.

He bobs and weaves like a sub-atomic helicopter in “Paragraph President” and rides the waves of the lazy seafaring “Blazing Arrow”. Consistently focused on spirituality and community he gets all Armageddoned-out on the mock-classical “Sky is Falling” and promotes the power of positive thinking in the soothing, organ-sprinkled “Green Light: Now Begin” (Hell of intelligent diligent heaven-sent benevolent relevant medicine/Poetry pedestrian peddelin’ mad adrenaline to lyrical gentlemen).

Blackalicious also share quality time with ghostly remains of Gil-Scott Heron in the luminous “First in Flight”, and rock with some of Jurassic 5 over the beef-jerky dry piano of “4000 Miles” as well as the “I can’t believe he rapped the periodic table of elements” stunt rap of “Chemical Calisthenics”:

C-A-O-H-2 wine water solution of calcium hydroxide
Slobbin it, C-A-O lime will make bleach powder
Galvanic metal beats stomp out louder
Dried ice, C-0 squared refrigerant
N-O-2 makes you laugh, it’s laughing gas used by the dentists
I nearly added acid glue, I’m like oil of a toil, the king of chemicals
And the G heat gas waved all your mats
Chemical change, ice point, melt all your raps
Atomic weight, hold shocks, when you call
Refillable gas keep going way beyond
Biotch I’m only ill with buzzin, feel the ambiance
A diabetic process outta calm your ass
After I warm your ass, I’ll give sodium, silicate N-O-2-S-1-O-3, a water glass
Borax flexure full of brimstone sulfur
Boraxic acid, hip-hop preserver
C-O-2 could never put away the fire
Style aroma is scientific; the lyrical fuse would be connected
To teach you chemical calisthenics

Kids, don’t try this rap without adult supervision. You could hurt yourself. Ever had a tongue cramp? Ouch.

THE FALLOUT: With a fistful of glowing reviews but a handful of sales, Blazing Arrow also suffered from the shuttering of its record label, a move which also doomed Common’s Electric Circus. Four years later Blackalicious released their follow-up The Craft. And once again, on an independent label. And so it goes.

Blazing Arrow is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

Tasty and comforting, Blazing Arrow makes for essential nourishment.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: In honor of Cinco De Mayo, listen to an unsung Latino departure album from Los Lobos.

Cee-Lo: Cee-Lo Green… is the Soul Machine (2004)


Merrie melodies from God’s cog.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 2002 ex-Goodie Mob boss Cee-Lo dropped his experimental sonic salvo Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections to majestic acclaim and miniscule sales. Soldiering forward he erupted a new volcano of tunes in 2004’s powerhouse Cee-Lo Green… is the Soul Machine.

The son of Atlanta ministers, Cee-Lo considers his many musical talents to be divinely inspired, and considers his albums to be gospel music. But he’s definitely the Lord of a new church, as he preaches, teaches, sings and blings his sermons.

Blessed with a greasy, nasal, vinyl elastic boom of a voice, he can croon with the best and battle-rap the rest, as he does in the alleyway rumble of “Glockapella”. Smoothly sliding from Cab Calloway class in “Evening News” to spoken word electronica in “I Am Selling Soul”, he’s so excited to show us the depth of his talent.

He rolls us his humble side in the crisp survival tale“Living Again”, and waxes his superego over the slamming cartoon waltz of “Childz Play”:

The young Cee, the one treats everything the sun seek
I’m hollering, can’t help, I’m hungry
I cake rap, bake rap, sack rap, trap rap
Same shoes, same shirt, the same work, the same jerk
Claim hurt, the game hurt, my name work, it ain’t work
I’m fast, time fast, I’m first, I’m last
Psychic, I knew you would like it, like this
I write this, priceless, more then my right wrist
Cock back, block track, the beat bleed, speak read
Men eat weed, bead seed, I speed read, you need me…

Yes I can sing, and I can rap
And I can act, and I can dance
And I can dress, sign of the best

And it’s not bragging if you can pull it off, right? This nearly flawless genre-hopping album even had the support of his label’s president…

THE FALLOUT: …who was fired soon after the albums’ release. Without support from the top Soul Machine fell off the charts like birdshot off an elderly hunter’s face. The next year Cee-Lo co-wrote and produced the Pussycat Dolls international hit song “Don’t Cha”, thereby proving that God works in mysterious ways.

Cee-Lo Green… is the Soul Machine is available worldwide from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

Southern at the root but branching toward everywhere, Cee-Lo Green… is the Soul Machine is primed and powered to move your soul, your feet and your mind.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Garland Jeffrey’s bi-racial concept album, and why you haven’t heard it.

Dr. Octagon: Dr. Octagonecologyst (1996)


HMOs could never rock’n’roll like this.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 1996 surfing the Web was a silent activity until multimedia company Macromedia announced Shockwave®, the first browser plug-in that could play sound over the Internet. I excitedly downloaded and installed Shockwave then clicked on one the few song samples Macromedia had posted, expecting to hear something simple, basic. What I heard instead was a molasses-slow alien ooze, undulating under tender displaced violins, punctuated by a single note bass line and a calmly disturbed emcee:

Dr. Octagon, paramedic fetus of the east
With priests, I’m from the church of the operating room
With the strike support, scalpels since the holocaust
I do indeed in greed, explore meet the patients
Back to brooms with the nurse with the voodoo curse
Holding up office lights, standing at huge heights
Back and forth, left wing swing to north
East and south with blood pouring down your mouth
I come prepared with the white suit and stethoscope
Listen to your heartbeat, delete beep beep beep
Your insurance is high, but my price is cheap
Look at the land… blue flowers!

By this point I’d completely forgotten about the technological feat of audio streaming because my synapses were in overload. What was he on about? Who was responsible for this unhinged brilliance?

Turns out Dr. Octagonecologyst was the brainchild of ex-Ultramagnetic MCs rapper Kool Keith and up-and-coming producer Dan The Automator, with supremely wicked scratching by DJ Q-Bert. Kool Keith had long been twisting surreal verses about animals and orifices under assumed names but this was the first time his alter-ego had consumed an entire project.

The good doctor was on a mission to misdiagnose, over-medicate and violate all patients while traveling through time and space. Over a soundscape of boom-baps, blip-blips and skits that mimicked a 1950s hospital drama, Kool Keith uncoiled intricate rhymes of unbridled lunacy.

They drop science of the nonsensical kind in “No Awareness” (Reinforce mixing copper nickel-beryllium oxide/Concentric layers, proportional carbon density of the radius/Indisturbed existence if it does produce contradictory statements) and meet mutations in the creepy “Halfsharkalligatorhalfman” (With my white eyes, gray hair, face is sky-blue yellow/ Sideburns react, my skin is colored lilac/ My skin turn orange and green in the limousine/People think I’m mixed with shark, drinking gasoline).

Radio transmissions of the alien kind infiltrate the beat-poetry of “Technical Difficulties”, while the doctor reinterprets the Hippocratic oath in the clinically gangsta “Waiting List”:

You enter, step in the room, 4, 5
My overcompressed thoughts and ways make you get live
You are the patient, and I your black doctor,
Medical bills, insurance, cash in the ceiling.
Dioxalyn fingerprints here ever since
I got my white suit pressed, out the cleaners,
X-ray shades, with hard shoes and some razor blades
Who’s the brother that’s sick, and needs the operation?
Bullets removed from your head, grand central station
I gotta cut off your ear, first behind your neck
Rip out the stomach, and open rectum’s to dissect
Shine the light, inside, roaches crawling in your throat
I have no tools, my hammer’s done, my drill is broke

An underground indie record sensation, Dr. Octagonecologyst was picked up and re-released by major label Dreamworks Records…

THE FALLOUT: … a label best known for country superstar Toby Keith and alternative rockers AFI and Papa Roach. Communication breakdown between the band members and the label came swift and hard, resulting in Kool Keith refusing to perform on a tour booked without his consent. Dr. Octagon soon disbanded, and Kool Keith had the doctor whacked on his next album, Dr. Dooom’s First Come, First Served.

Dr. Octagonecologyst is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

Doing for doctors what Little Shop Of Horrors did for dentists, Dr. Octagonecologyst transforms repulsion into altered consciousness.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Behold the Casio-Tone shrine of Spookie.

Common: Electric Circus (2002)


One day it’ll all make sense.

Purchase this album: Amazon

In 2000 Chicago-based conscious rapper Common released his third album, the instant classic Like Water For Chocolate. His first Top Twenty and first gold record, Chocolate’s lyrical depth and tight songs catapulted his ascendance into hip-hop’s big leagues. But his next album was in a league of its own, the retro-rockin’ Electric Circus.

Utilizing musicians and singers from rock, rap and R&B, he filled the album with gurgling organs, backwards noises and distorted guitar solos, the cumulative effect akin to hearing a rap album from 1967.

Adding to the surprises Common doesn’t even show up until the second song. The Zap Mama singers help tilt the carnival feel of “Ferris Wheel” into an ad hoc intro theme, then Common drops the boom-bap in “Soul Power” over a gumbo of spooky voices and violins.

Lyrically he chooses to be more impressionistic than specific, which suits the creepy French spy chase of “New Wave” and the psychedelic gospel of “Electric Wire Hustler Flower”:

Mercury and retrograde,
I’m trying to get niggas in the ghetto paid
While they watch pornos and Escalades,
away from floats and the dope in sex parades
Somebody screamin in my mind, I’m tryin to find if it’s me
Or voices on the master, they design to be free
Same revolt, can’t be found on TV, or radio, its livin in me
Hey lady, that smoke is bothering me
If I put it in your eye, ashes you would cry
All this rap talk is blowing my high
I just came to chill and build with my guy
I try to walk but I stumble off the humble path
This story of a pimp stick that became a staff
You got it, you gotta know where to aim the Mag
Art and opinions are made to clash

When he does focus his thoughts he brings forth the meditative and liquid “Between Me, You & Liberation”. A nearly spoken word poem on death and release, it floats in a midnight pool of jazzy drums and squirmy tones.

Common updates ragtime in “I Am Music” fusing fantastic bleary horns with UFO landing sounds. He also remakes rock’n’roll in the Hendrix homage “Jimi Was A Rock Star” an eight-minute exorcism of piledriving drums and head-bashing fret shredding.

With the right amount of record-label promotion, precisely setting and resetting expectations, this was the album to make his career.

THE FALLOUT: Three weeks after Electric Circus’ release, Common’s record label dissolved. Without adequate promotion it never gained a footing into other music circles, which left it squarely in the hip-hop camp. Journalists and fans dismissed it as un-listenable trash and publicly blamed his then-girlfriend, Erykah Badu, as the catalyst for his hideous transformation. His next album, Be, was a return to acceptance and sales, and free of all Circus’ progressiveness.

Electric Circus is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

See you next year.

NEXT YEAR: More albums, more obscurities, more cultures, and more uppityness.

Yeah, I know “uppityness” isn’t a word, but you know what I mean.

Saul Williams: Saul Williams (2004)


Grippo on another level.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 2001 New York slam-poet Saul Williams released his first album Amethyst Rock Star, the result of a difficult, label-controlled recording process. His unhappiness led him to kick his label to the curb and record his follow up on his own, the self-representative Saul Williams.

Wielding his flexible voice like a Swiss Army knife, Williams inhabits his energetic poems with an endless range of vocal styles – rapping, reciting, singing, shouting – while emoting his pet themes of self-awareness and hip-hop stagnation.

The xenophobic “Talk to Strangers” features unsettlingly icy piano from Serj Tankian (the lead singer of System Of A Down), its ballet grace compounding the paranoid confessional.

“Grippo”, Williams’ name for the song’s industrial punk-hop style, was written after attending a paradigm-shifting concert by white rappers. “So substitute the anger and oppression/ With the guilt and depression/ And its yours.” Stuck together like Brooklyn traffic, the greasy punk vocal dances around the guitars’ car alarm melody.

Hip-hop gets a stern talking-to in the vicious “Telegram”. Old-school flow melts over older-school heavy metal as Williams broadcasts the message:

We are discontinuing our current line of braggadocio,
in light of the current trend in “realness”. (stop).
As an alternative, we will be confiscating weed supplies
and replacing them with magic mushrooms,
in hopes of helping niggas see beyond their reality. (stop).

Williams backs up a truck full of cutting-edge beats and sounds to his prose. “List of Demands (Reparations)” finds him pleading over the vibration of massive turbines, and the distorted, dry, pasta crunch drums of “African Student Movement” charmingly unifies the rhythms of urban industrial and African township.

The piano jazz of “Black Stacey” is a humorous platform for him to croon and scat painful recollections of childhood racial politics:

I used to use bleaching creme,
’til Madame CJ Walker walked into my dreams.
I dreamt of being white and complimented by you,
but the only shiny black thing that you liked was my shoes….
I was Black Stacey.
the preachers’ son from Haiti
who rhymed a lot and always got
the dance steps at the party.
I was Black Stacey.
you thought it wouldn’t faze me,
but it did
’cause I was just a kid.

Multiple voices, rock solid flow, exciting tunes, a high-profile arts career – what happened to this album?

THE FALLOUT: I looked for Saul Williams in the Rock section of my favorite record store. Finding nothing I then zoomed over to the Spoken Word section, where I found lots of similar albums by poets, although they were all Caucasian. Eventually I found it the Hip-Hop section, after the Westside Connection divider.

Usually an album this diverse would be placed in the Rock section, as it generally serves as a catch-all for departure albums. I wonder how many people looked for it and simply gave up the search.

Saul Williams is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

A propulsive snapshot of his current mental state, Saul Williams is the sound of a free thinker, an alive mind, and hot beats.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Shuggie Otis breaks with convention, and possibly reality.