The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust
Three things lately have been making me feel sweet about Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails:
1. On a recent episode of "Project Runway," there was a clip from the previous season with Santino reciting the words to NIN's "Closer" in his impeccable Tim Gunn voice. If you aren't a fan if the show, this is meaningless, but trust me, it replaced the Star Trek youTube video as the perfect reading of this song in my mind.
2. I was out with some friends watching a pack of predatory frat boys continually play Smiths songs on the jukebox only underscoring their unrealized gayness unbeknownst to the gals woven into their nest, when suddenly Johnny Cash's devastating take on NIN's "Hurt" came on. A friend exclaimed, "Who would play this in a bar?" and we swung over to see a denim clad burnout swaying with closed eyes, mouthing the words before the jukebox. It was corny and poetic and speaks to Reznor's hidden Springsteen-like knack for popular sentiment
3. He provided the production for the oddest hip-hop album of the year, Saul Williams' The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust.
I glommed onto this for the same reason that I suspect most did; Williams offered it for free on his website, giving us a Radiohead-like question-mark option to pay him for it if we like it. Like samples of rubbery cheese in the grocery store, I am helpless to resist free things, but it took a couple weeks before I could really take in its peculiar delights.
Williams is not what I would exactly call a natural MC; his rap candence adheres rather strongly to the ta-da ta-DA ta-daaah ta-Da old school jumprope variety, but his work as a poet (he was a key figure in the movie Slam) helps him rise above it. "Black History Month" rumbles up to you like the bass rattling from the car in the next lane, and he is backed with thug choir which can send chills up the spine of any white guy who dares to exclaim they are not a racist. Then "Convict Colony" erupts like a lost Living Color outtake. My first couple listens led me to think that this is the most outdated hip-hop revisionism I'd heard in ages; it is like when a DJ starts playing Sir Mix-a-Lot for a white dance floor until it hit me...oh, that is exactly what vein he's mining.
The real telling moment is his rather faithful reading of U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday." At first you think he's just going to rap over that telltale beat, but nope, he starts telling you what he read in the news today on cue with some 199x techno leftover scraps sitting in for The Edge's bagpipe guitar. It is preposterous, but in its way it works. Maybe irony didn't die with Seinfeld like I previously thought.
Much of the rest of the record reminds me of Prince's awkward forays in hip-hop. You'd think the Purple One could conquer rapping with a wave of his perfumed sleeve, but it never works. Reznor occupies a Princely spot in my thinking, continually rehashing the thing that was legitimately infectious and perfect on 1989's Pretty Hate Machine, relatively impervious to the breezes of fashion playing through the decades since its release. But like Prince fans, ask any diehard NIN acolyte and they don't care - the shit still rocks to them and everything else struggles for relevance.
The bulk of this record only serves to support my theory that poets have horribly outdated tastes in music. One poet acquaintance still holds her old Talking Heads tapes close to her heart, despite the fading expiration date on the cover, and Williams seems to be in that number. Tracks like "WTF!" dully thud like 1980's action movie sountracks. One exception is the dub-wise "Scared Money" where he sounds like a searing slam poet instead of a struggling rapper, and while its admirable to play to your weaknesses for artistic intent, it hits harder when you play to your strengths. Same with "Raw," which is a D'Angelo-like slice of subliminal neo-soul. Williams has an affable singing voice, and it suits the swallowed production Reznor brings to the album.
It's an odd bird, this record. If you are looking to have your shit knocked straight by some old school black consciousness, the recent offerings by Common and Talib Kweli are awaiting the arrival of your revolutionary ass. But if you have a curious mind, and possibly a theatre degree in your woodpile, black nail polish on your nightstand and a breakdance mat still in your hall closet, Saul Williams might just be the thing you're looking for.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com