Thursday 11 February 2010

Saul Williams - Amethyst Rock Star (2001)

I’ve been listening to a lot of hip-hop lately – which has been tying in with some of my thoughts surrounding the role of the oral and aural in poetry – and Saul Williams has been one of those who has most interested me. His use of contemporary rock elements, particularly on his more recent albums, isn’t always to my taste, but, lyrically, he’s someone I can very much admire as a true poet –as someone who bends and twists language like it was a physical thing, to make it mean to turn the head and spin the mind. Below are some extended notes on his first album, ‘Amethyst Rock Star’.

As might be apparent from the title of this, his debut record, Williams is not your easily categorisable artist. While what he does has some affinities with ‘conscious hip-hop’ in the vein of Common or Mos Def, its musical setting is often quite different, and, lyrically, it tends more towards the ‘spoken-word poetry’ with which he made his name than to the tropes of rap, which are included as part of a word-play centred commentary (“While you rhyme about being hardcore, be heartcore”), as objects of reflection rather than as carriers of the message. Such a refusal of category conventions arguably originates from hip-hop’s own use of sampling to provide a wide range of generic backdrops to the vocals – including not just music but snippets of film dialogue and ‘slice-of-life’-style conversational interplay as part of a line-blurring performance act – but, given hip-hop’s emergence as a much more marketable, solidified, and less fluid thing than it was in the past, Williams’ category-dodging is fraught with both entwined musical and racial tensions that complicate the critical position taken on his work. On ‘Amethyst Rock Star’, Williams is working with (a) politically-conscious aural poetry (b) such poetry as it shades into ‘hip-hop’ (c) rock music inflections. Thus he announces himself not as a ‘rapper’ (though from comments he’s made in interviews, it seems that producer Rick Rubin was trying to get him to make a ‘hip-hop’ record), not as a ‘hip-hop artist’, but as a rock star – and not as just another rock star either – rather, as one restoring to the word what it has lost in terms of its stellar potential, its light-filled metaphoric power (Williams as a poet is much into outer space (as Sun Ra): the use of space as a fantastic realm which, rather than just providing escapism, liberates into a new understanding of the world away from hackneyed modes of perception, racial social cultural models leading to a slow dying which extends to the way life is lived as much as it does to the preponderance of death). At the same time, the notion of the ‘amethyst rock’ succeeds in bringing things back down to earth – to the first line of poetry that Williams ever wrote (see the Introduction to ‘The Dead Emcee Scrolls) – “I stand on the corner of the block slinging amethyst rocks” – which is at once the (generalized) nonchalance of the man ‘just hanging out’, watching, observing, waiting, and (given the story surrounding the creation of this poem) the very personal experience of the poet discovering himself in a moment of inspiration that seems hardly explicable by means of ‘rationality’, but as part of the same kind of logic as dreams, as the surreal. This process of transportation is prompted by a physical object – the piece of amethyst Williams carried around with him in his pocket – valued at once for its material qualities and for the spiritual awakening that somehow surrounds it, becomes associated with it. I’m sure that what also appeals to Williams is the notion of the rock star as an individual set apart from the crowd, though very much an embodiment of a collective will – as a voice channeling and having an impact on the thoughts and feelings of (sometimes) a whole generation, as vehicle for the people (and the spirits) to speak through.

As this star like a precious stone, Williams also plays off the ‘bling’ culture of contemporary hip-hop, suggesting a spiritual power rather than the mere glitter of baubles – an insistence on the divinity of the human (a la William Blake) which extends into what many might see as an excessive egotism (in itself another familiar hip-hop trait – bigging oneself up at the expense of others, the bragging song – though Williams isn’t about cursing out his rivals as the mere trading of insults; rather, he castigates those in power or those pretending to a ‘gangster’ cool, to ‘keeping it real’). This reaches its apogee on the final track where the poet shouts out the words: “So never question who I am, God knows/ And I know God personally/ In fact he lets me call him me / In fact he lets me call him me” – which he follows up with a hint at the matriarchal, eastern-oriented God of his book, ‘Said the Shotgun to the Head’ (as opposed to the phallic, male, western model, its apogee found in the shotgun pointed to the head, the suicide of civilisation): “And I know God personally/ In fact she lets me call her me/ In fact she lets her call her me.” It’s a suitably overblown climax (and really quite exhilarating – though more so when he digs into his chanted rhythmix than when he bellows out the sung chorus), bringing things full-circle from the record’s Wu-Tang-style opening: “Nigga you better drink half a gallon of Shaolin before they play on the strings of my violin.” That opening is typical of Williams in its word-play twists, as a colourful boast moves into the more complex notions suggested by “my life is orchestrated” – at once a kind of tight-wired organisation (against the forces of oppression), and something weighted against by the deadening organisations of routines and category-placements – as well as a claim to equal legitimacy with the bastions of white culture (“london symphony, concentrated”), and a move out beyond America (to be taken up on the Greek and Egyptian references later in the song).

And overblown boasts or aspirations to the divine within are not the records’ only lyrical themes, with the debts owed to others figure just as strongly. The most noticeable example of this is the massive shout-out list mid-way through ‘Coded Language’, where the chanted names take on the quality of a ritualistic utterance, an incantation, magic syllables – it’s as if Williams thinks he can actually channel the spirits of these predecessors the louder and more forcefully he yells out their names, and, listening to it, you might almost come to believe that yourself. As throughout the record, this wouldn’t have the same impact translated onto paper – it lives and breathes as sound, language as larynx, as breath and lung, as tongue and teeth. The best approximation I can think of this effect, beyond listening to the album itself, is provided by the computer’s sadly inadequate caps lock-key: “in the name of: ROBESON, GOD'S SON, HURSTON, AHKENATON, HATHSHEPUT, BLACKFOOT, HELEN, LENNON, KHALO, KALI, THE THREE MARIAS, TARA, LILITHE, LOURDE, WHITMAN, BALDWIN, GINSBERG, KAUFMAN, LUMUMBA, GHANDI, GIBRAN, SHABAZZ, SIDDHARTHA, MEDUSA, GUEVARA, GUARDSIEFF, RAND, WRIGHT, BANNEKER, TUBMAN, HAMER, HOLIDAY, DAVIS, COLTRANE, MORRISON, JOPLIN, DUBOIS, CLARKE, SHAKESPEARE, RACHMNINOV, ELLINGTON, CARTER, GAYE, HATHOWAY, HENDRIX, KUTL, DICKERSON, RIPPERTON, MARY, ISIS, THERESA, PLATH, RUMI, FELLINI, MICHAUX, NOSTRADAMUS, NEFERTITI, LA ROCK, SHIVA, GANESHA, YEMAJA, OSHUN, OBATALA, OGUN, KENNEDY, KING, FOUR LITTLE GIRLS, HIROSHIMA, NAGASAKI, KELLER, BIKO, PERONE, MARLEY, COSBY, SHAKUR, THOSE STILL AFLAMED, AND THE COUNTLESS UNNAMED.” Of course, this isn’t quite as simple as it seems – it’s not just another list of African-Americans of note, for it incorporates Hiroshima and Nagaski, and blends said African-Americans with white poets, South American revolutionaries, English playwrights, Russian pianist-composers, and Indian Gods. “In the name of” – that opening phrase, which takes on something of the quality of an intake of breath before the great exhalation of words, echoes the ‘exorcism’ conducted at the end of ‘Penny for a Thought’; Williams takes on the language and tonal gravitas/fever pitch of religion and translates it into his own idiosyncratic cry for a new way of seeing. This new path incorporates diverse and esoteric religions, political figures, and reconfigured attitudes to sexuality, class and race – “we enlist / every so-called race, gender, and sexual preference”; reconfigured relations between humans and, ultimately between humans and the world – “Climb waterfalls and trees, commune with nature, snakes and bees.” The aim is not to draw up a simple “list of demands” that can be ticked off some bureaucrat’s checklist as if that erased the stains of past guilt and continuing injustice – the aim is (and Williams seems to mean this literally), to “uplift the consciousness of the entire fucking world.” And this is not merely a utopian dream content to remain simply as a dream, the goal stated so as, in effect, to maintain its difference; it is a battle-cry designed to be implemented, for such uplifting is a responsibility: “Every per-son as beings of sound to acknowledge their responsibility to uplift the consciousness of the entire fucking World.” These are aims that other hip-hop artists – even the most conscious and ‘right-on’ of the lot – don’t even come close to approaching, and it’s these aims which make Williams’ poetry so refreshing, so invigorating, so necessary.

On the more subdued moments – for they do exist as well! – there is just as much to admire. ‘Robeson’ has its ostensible subject and atmosphere the surrealism of a dream in which the human and animal disconcertingly entwine through the distortions of a marriage ceremony, overseen (and burdened) by the ghosts of oppressed ancestors and those (like Robeson) who spoke out against that oppression; but ends up as Williams’ earnest plea for his daughter to forgive him for his neglect – though no coincidence here that her name is Saturn, thus connecting the responsibilities and emotional niceties of the domestic with the longings and the upward reaches of the cosmic, the necessary entwining of ‘real life’ and imagination (because the two are one): “How could I ever neglect to hug you? You are a planet hugged by a rainbow”. Williams is acutely aware of the dangers of having one’s head filled with dreams of the cosmos and of total liberation – political, social, cultural, sexual, spiritual – which might lead one to neglect relationships with the very human beings for whose benefit and in whose name this revolution is supposed to exist. It’s characteristic that he chooses to address this through a fusion of the two modes – the elevated poetry and the simplicity of his care for his daughter (“God’s will be done. I love you.”) I’m not sure that we’ve heard such penetrating honesty since Michael Franti’s ‘Music and Politics’ (“If ever I would stop thinking about music and politics, I would tell you that sometimes it’s easier to desire and pursue the attention and admiration of 100 strangers than it is to accept the love and loyalty of those closest to me….If ever I would stop thinking about music and politics, I would tell you that the personal revolution is far more difficult, and is the first step in any revolution”).

In terms of the music, this is a rap record with a rock band – rock would manifest itself even more explicitly in Williams’ following releases: ‘Saul Williams’, where he ditched the band for backgrounds which he mostly produced himself (though, rather than sounding home-made in any lo-fi way, they tend to come across as rather standardised, Rage Against the Machine-style rap-rock – repeated hooks blared loud with the focus moved away from the words and the pell-mell or reflective delivery they generate, which is where the subtlety and interest is really at), and ‘The Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust’, where he covers U2 (nice to hear a contemporary American rapper talking about injustices outside the usual remits – in this case, Northern Ireland) & whose title responds to shape-shifter white rockstar David Bowie. Mind you, ‘Amethyst Rock Star’ doesn’t really feature a typical ‘rock band’ as such – primarily because it includes cello and viola alongside the bass, drums and guitar. In fact, the cello appears to be electric and is often used to double or complement the guitar, to play guitar-type riffs – which can be rather effective, as on the storming 11-minute concluding track, ‘Wine’, or the urgent propulsion with which it begins ‘La La La’. What we don’t have here is the sampling culture of hip-hop; but then again, one might argue that, in Williams’ case, the sampling is in the words, which, seemingly carried along on the weight of their own propulsion, bring in whole cultures and frames of references that you could all too easily miss if you switched off for a few seconds. And, as I’ve said before, Williams isn’t exactly a hip-hop artist, in a strict sense, anyway – and neither he is ‘just’ a slam poet – he is not ‘just’ anything. And thus, on his debut ‘hip-hop’ record, he operates over a drum n’ bass hook (the title cut of DJ Krust’s ‘Coded Language’, reprised on this album), his voice switching to lilts of half-sung Rasta (“seven mountains higher than the valley of death”), his words full of metres and rhymes that spill over the standard couplets of rap, his interests (as I’ve been stressing, and as he’s admitted in interviews) very much embracing rock (this embracement of a piece with his strategy to dare and to defy – to reclaim rock, a whitened version of black music, and in doing so to connect with the neglected the work of the Black Rock Coalition as well as with all those blues forebears). And finally, given his criticism of the trend towards “realness” in much modern rap – “keeping it real” as promoting an ersatz sense of how things are, when the necessity is to change them – it’s entirely appropriate that his reconfiguration of the racial stereotyping of the black man and woman is also part of his quasi-mystical philosophy: “The role of darkness is not to be seen as, or equated with, Ignorance, but with the unknown, and the mysteries of the unseen.” From where we are to where we could be and back again with that changed perspective: Williams is nothing if not ambitious, and ‘Amethyst Rock Star’ remains a clarion-call whose vibrations continue to ripple the air nearly a decade after its release.

Friday 5 February 2010

Gil Scott-Heron: I'm New Here (XL Recordings, 2010)

Let’s not talk about the release of this new album as an ‘event’, if we can help it. Yes, Gil Scott-Heron, ‘godfather of rap’, a hugely important voice in bringing socially-conscious messages to both black and white youth, has not recorded an album since 1994’s ‘Spirits’. Yes, he has been in and out of prison, has had plans for recordings and for books planned and then postponed, has made intermittent public appearances but been generally been shrouded in rumours of ill-health and personal breakdown. Yes, all this has happened – and the record’s title suggests a very specific engagement with the notion that Heron is a quote-unquote major artist who must add to his legacy, must teach us all once again, must justify his absence with another classic. Might it suggest that Heron is a new man, reborn, coming out of hard times with his head held high once more? And would that mean a return to the Heron of the old days, or would it mean a re-invented, re-invigorated artist, starting over just as strong but in a different place?

These are all questions that Heron does not need to answer: he has done enough, whatever the critics may say about missed opportunities, not to have to make another statement if he does not wish to; his position is assured. But, as listeners, as critics, we cannot help but make them – we cannot pretend to listen in a vacuum. And so the comparisons begin almost as soon as we press play.

First off, after we get past the spoken-word of the opening track, we’ll notice that Heron sounds less comfortable singing now (perhaps explaining the choice of Smog’s neo-folk acoustic number ‘I’m New Here’ to cover; in the original, Bill Callahan’s sung voice was always on the brink of shading over into laconic, spoken reflection, and here, Heron speaks most of the words, singing only the short, recurring chorus). His voice is now partially possessed of the ‘lived-in’ croak that characterises latter-day Dylan and Tom Waits. Though that has always been part of Waits' cigarettes-and-alcohol mystique, and seems to have become an accentuation of Dylan’s famously less than smooth vocal stylings (albeit one so extreme that its burden must be borne by his status as a ‘living legend’ fondly canonised by both a generation of fading hippies and Professor Christopher Ricks), in Heron’s case, as his voice was quite mellifluous before, this may have necessitated a stylistic change, as it can’t quite carry the righteous soul style. (It will be interesting to hear what material Heron tackles in his upcoming live shows – one would have thought that a record like this wouldn’t really be feasible as a stage show, and a return to the jazz/soul instrumental styling would seem likely.)

But, given all this, one must remember that spoken word is how Heron started off in the first place – his debut record announced him as ‘A New Black Poet’, and it is as poet as much as singer that he appears here. Despite the apparently low-key title of that record (‘Small-Talk at 125th and Lenox’), the wide-ranging subject matter and the urgent desire to speak political realities meant that he was soon aligned with the poet-teachers of the 1970s African-American urban experience: June Jordan, Jayne Cortez, Larry Neal, Amiri Baraka, Father Amde Hamilton, Otis O’Solomon, Richard Dedeaux, Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, Abiodun Oyewole, Umar Bin Hassan. Of course, such a reduction – to a list of names – would mitigate the approach that all these artists shared, one that was about ‘the revolution of everyday life’, rather than about soapbox sermonising or political platitudinising divorced from the thoughts and feelings, the insults and injuries, the imposed or unwitting failures, and, yes too, the joys that occupied every minute of every day for vast numbers of ordinary people. Thus, while all the reviews will focus on the fact that ‘I’m New Here’ is a ‘personal’ record, a chastened Heron’s reaction to years of silence through addiction and imprisonment, it’s worth noting that the material which made his name was precisely defined by its absence of sloganeering (this is the narrative of ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ – moving revolution, as a movement, away from the simplicity of oft-repeated clichés, catchphrases, and images), and by its focus on the inseparability of the personal and the political (think of the way the narrative of black poverty and institutional callousness in ‘Pieces of a Man’ is filtered through a sentiment of personal and private grief). Nonetheless, while Heron, particularly as time went on, did take on the position of spokesman (shouting out against the Reagan era, then advising the hip-hop artists who followed in his wake to take more account of their social responsibility, as potential teachers of, and voices for their generation), his absence from the scene perhaps mitigates against his effectiveness as the wise elder – having passed on the mantle, he can self-reflect, in a manner of course still tied to the forces that shaped him, but with the specifics of political concern not voiced explicitly.

Instead, what seems a more imaginatively exaggerated world emerges. This may result as much as anything from the ominous sound of the music: its samples and murmurs, its hisses and whirrs are a world away from the soul-drenched piano chords and jazz bass of the more familiar work, though the references to Charon and to Satan, and the flickering, high speed urban ghosts of the video to ‘Me and the Devil’ certainly have their say in the matter too. Given further reflection, however, one realises that the words frequently turn on themes familiar enough to count as archetypal. The personal demons of alcohol-fuelled sleeplessness and the drudge of routine (‘Where Did the Night Go’) form a quieter, more intimate variation on ‘The Bottle’, while, elsewhere, it is the classic themes of the blues that are returned to: the old theme of urban decay as contrasted against the simplicity of a poor, but perhaps more ‘honest’, rural past (‘New York is Killing Me’), the attractive yet unsettling force of the supernatural (‘Me and the Devil’) – where the supernatural becomes a potent force, not so much structured into simple moral schemes but as figured as part of the complexity of human behaviour, and – crucially – part of the complexity of the traditions formed over centuries by African-Americans reacting to their transplantation and subsequent isolation in ‘the land of the free’.

Transformation is a major part of this experience – the practice of ‘signifying’ – jazz’s transformation of white instruments through black music – Sun Ra’s transformation of a multitude of subjects, from spirituals to space travel – Ray Charles’ transformation of gospel styles from the sacred to the profane – Heron’s non-televised transformation of the slogans of consumer culture into their negation. And ‘I’m New Here’, too, is about transformation – two of the stand-out tracks are covers, back to the roots with Robert Johnson’s ‘Me and the Devil’, and, more surprisingly, turning to acoustic guitar and the (musically) lilting, (lyrically) self-interrogating ‘I’m New Here’ by Bill Calahan (a.k.a. Smog). Connecting the subdued, whimsical delicacy of white folk-tradition in the latter, with the blues’ more extrovert, dramatically strident position doesn’t so much seal their differences as emphasise the common thread of vulnerability and personal honesty underlining both – as well as the fact that such apparent straightforwardness is always an assuming of a role, a self-dramatisation that stands, often ambiguously, for a truth, rather than presenting that truth direct in itself. This is a balance between frailty and strutting confidence that the record treats as central. It doesn’t shy away from the increased weakness of Heron’s voice; rather, the production takes account of it, even foregrounds it – rather than compensating with a thicker background texture, it keeps things sparse and stripped-down, to emphasize rather than to hide.

This turns out to mean that we have here a striking generic difference to previous Scott-Heron albums. The aforementioned production is decidedly lo-fi (with tape hiss and sparing use of murky samples), and its sparse, semi-industrial sound owes much to the spaciousness, to the minimal, almost empty ghost-traces of dub-step, where samples drift in and out almost un-noticed, where tracks float along on skeletal beats that pound with mechanical precision but that never feel fast or driving. There are no saxophone, flute or piano solos to add more complex improvised variations over the song’s basic structures; instead, there are the pauses between phrases, the tension hanging on each word, the wait for each weighted-syllable.

And, given that the fifteen-track record lasts for only 28-minutes (including a number of ‘interludes’ – 10-second, reverb’d snippets of Heron in conversation), each syllable is most definitely weighted. Such brevity makes it important to experience the whole thing as one, continuous, flowing entity: the recurring Kanye West sample which opens and closes the record, giving it an element of circularity; the transference of mood from tales of spirits and the threat of damnation (‘Me and the Devil’, ‘Your Soul and Mine’) to personal ruminations hung-over with depression and unease (‘Where Did the Night Go’, ‘Running’), to warmer reminiscences and reflections on a life – the way it was lived, the influences that shaped it (the short spoken-word snippets). Though the songs themselves generally have a clear and simple structure, the predominance of spoken word and the sparseness of the background mean that tracks don’t split as easily into single entities as they do on, say, ‘Pieces of a Man’. Because of this, some might slant this as a record of half-started (or half-finished) demos and sketches, spliced together and put out there before it’s reached the stage of a rounded, completed artistic statement. Indeed, the quick-fix critic in me suggested that very angle when I first heard these tracks, but, in trying to actually listen to and experience the album with an open attitude, I realised that trying to impose such a structure would not be to take this record on its own terms – which is the only way it is going to make sense. Forget pre-conditioned ideas about how an album ‘should’ be constituted – as much as you can – and, allowing that the distance of time may allow a more finely-balanced judgement once a few years have passed, I think one can say that this is a good piece of work: sincere, not bombastic, not expected; unsentimental but frank, not directed towards melody as on the classic albums but with enough melodic aftertaste to satisfy. And in that sense, assessment as to whether it is a ‘major album’ or an ‘important comeback’, and attempts to place it into a particular model of ‘late recordings by former legends’ (all the Johnny Cash comparisons we’ve been hearing), come to seem rather unnecessary, rather out of place. You can hear it for what it is, and you should.