Born out of ongoing activism that stems back to mid the ‘90s, Saul Williams returns to his expressive roots on his latest studio release. Whilst The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! excelled in its embrace of industrial hip-hop, MartyrLoserKing is more in line with his fearless debut Amethyst Rock Star.
The art of spoken-word relies heavily on repetition, which at its best is powerful and captivating, but at its worst can fall flat on its face. MartyrLoserKing leans towards the higher end of the spectrum, and does so without pretention. It’s a flowing performance that remains engaging to the very end, comprised of attitude and rebellion and aided by fantastic instrumentals that pull together a variety of sounds from the digital world.
Underneath the skin lies a tribal pulse that emphatically supports the raw energy of Williams’ performance, which virtually turns ethereal on “The Noise Came From Here”. The percussion is one of the most captivating things about MartyrLoserKing; two of the most engaging tracks in “Burundi” and “Think Like They Book Say” have the tremendously gritty beats necessary to keep up with Williams’ wordplay.
While there’s very little wrong with any of the cuts here, the album in its entirety can feel a little half-baked — if Williams pushed himself just that little bit further, like we know he can, this could have been a defining work. As it stands, Martyr Loser King will likely join his previous records in being under-rated gems.
It’s a tragedy that Saul Williams’ work isn’t more recognized, but the reality is that a petty Twitter feud between two of the most ridiculous narcissists in hip-hop somehow has more cultural importance than the verse of “Coltan as Cotton”. The prospect of a positive future is there so long as voices such as Williams’ are heard.
7 out of 10
There’s something uniquely engaging about MartyrLoserKing. When listening to it I don’t hear an album so much as I do a vivid and vibrant spoken word performance. Small wonder given Saul Williams’ background, but worthy of mention up-front given much of the work’s impact stems from the deference it pays to its vocals.
The tapestry of sound Williams performs against gives his words distinct form, and often burgeons them. The percussion reigns a booming, pulse-like, primal energy — “Burundi” and “The Noise From Here” being notable examples. Synthesisers seep through the track list, giving the work’s harsher tints a lovely polish. That’s just scratching the surface, too. Only giving it a listen really does it justice. MartyrLoserKing toys with a really quite beautiful jumble of sounds. Producer Justin Warfield put in all the stops, and at no point does an effect feel jarring or out of place.
Williams’ performance flows as a result. He fully merits his role as the centre-piece of the work. All these qualities culminate in a silky and complete creative splash. It doesn’t soar, but it isn’t really trying to. MartyrLoserKing speaks, and there’s real pleasure to be had in kicking back and lending it your ear. That’s the transaction, sincere and worthwhile.
8 out of 10
Saul Williams’ latest album has had a relatively quiet release, but it may make for one of 2016’s hidden gems. MartyrLoserKing has a distinctive, explorative, industrial sound that melds analogue and digital effortlessly, rapidly evolving in instrumentation and atmosphere, with Williams’ vocals sitting firmly in the middle of it all.
Each track delivers a great deal more besides to interest the listener, straddling a world of genres while keeping to a consistency in tone throughout the album. A track like “Think Like They Book Say”, with its agitated, Death Grips-esque delivery and wailing clarinets, doesn’t sound like a good counterpart to its successor “The Bear / Coltan As Cotton”, with it’s latin-influenced percussion and faintly Jarvis Cocker-like vocals, but these tracks complement each other well and this pacing continues throughout the album.
Saul’s lyrics expand the concept of hacking to a wider plain, dealing with social norms such as the mistruths that form tradition and the fragility of society, making for some interesting, timely vocals that he could clearly fill another album with.
Martyr Loser King never outstays its welcome and invites listeners back for repeat listens with its diversity and topical interest, and I can only fault it on never pushing itself a little further than it ever does. Had it done so, it would’ve been one of the year’s outstanding releases. As it is, it’s a brilliant album that I’ll most definitely be returning to.
8 out of 10