MARTYRLOSERKING: ALBUM REVIEW
If you’re looking for an easy listen, turn back now. But, if you’re willing to take a deep listen into a heavy album, you’ll be rewarded with an epic venture into a masterpiece of socially-aware, experimental hip-hop. You might recognize renowned slam poet Saul Williams from his appearances on Def Poetry Jam (see his performance of “Coded Language”) or his lead acting role in Slam (1998). Like his poetry, Williams’ music focuses on themes of social inequity and revolutionary political thought, as he outspokenly criticizes fascism, corruption, economic exploitation, and patriarchy, among other global injustices.
This 2016 release is a concept album that follows a fictional revolutionary Burundian hacker, the eponymous MartyrLoserKing, located in a village built from computer parts near a coltan mine. MartyrLoserKing seeks to expose the exploitation of Burundian people and resources and attack authoritarian and colonial regimes through the ignition of a revolution starting on the deep web. The album will be accompanied by Neptune Frost, a film directed and produced by Williams featuring a Rwandan and Burundian cast and crew.
I first heard this record while browsing through a crate at Dave’s Records on Clark St. in Chicago. I had never heard anything like it before--its background chanting and choral motifs create a vocal blanket of sound, while elements borrowed from jazz, alternative rock, and electronica form a sound profile not often seen in hip-hop. My interest was particularly piqued by the second track on the record, “Horn of the Clockbike,” on which Williams speaks over a looping piano riff that is equally disturbing and captivating. Despite not knowing the album’s concept at that point, I found the lines “child of the prisoner / statues of martyrs / hackers as artists” absolutely unforgettable. That day, I purchased a copy of MartyrLoserKing alongside a copy of The Strokes’ Room on Fire, another album I strongly recommend if you’re into post-punk and indie rock. (Reminder: If you’re able to, go give a shout to the folks at your local record store and support small businesses and artists!)
MartyrLoserKing is Saul Williams’ cry for justice—he demands that the world recognizes injustice in all forms. “Fuck you, understand me,” he repeats incessantly on “All Coltrane Solos At Once.” He criticizes color-blindness and cultural appropriation, rapping “race is performative / asked Maya to translate Joplin / she said Scott or Janice.” Williams then condemns the fact that suffering and harm continue to be inflicted on humans and the environment on such an enormous scale despite progress: “We were crowded in the shitbins of a floating toilet / dreaming of an afterlife… the ability to calculate distance, harness power, stem cells, erect mobile mansions capable of projecting destruction at greater and greater will.” This evocative illustration of modern exploitation and alienation from reality hits hard. “The Bear/Coltan as Cotton” is another incredibly compelling track that reads as a manifesto of sorts;\: “Hack into land rights and ownership / hack into business, law of proprietorship / hack into ambition and greed.” MartyrLoserKing’s revolution seeks to destroy the institution of capitalism, “the relation of free labor and slavery,” and whereas world governments will fight to uphold it, MartyrLoserKing fights back through virtual attacks. The track’s title itself speaks to the perpetuation of slavery in modern capitalism--coltan, a mineral used in electronic devices, is often mined using slave labor, speaking not only to exploitative labor practices, but also the consumer’s inadvertent contribution to slavery.
Make no mistake, MartyrLoserKing is rough on the ears and lacks the potential to make radio playtime--the album’s tracks have unconventional structure and its unsettling tone isn’t particularly inviting to listeners. But this is precisely the point. Saul Williams poetically presents the unspeakable horrors of the modern world as they are--often painful and difficult to hear, while inspiring hope for a revolution led by those hurt most by exploitative practices, using the very resources and products stolen from them and their labor. Play this album through in order. Have lyrics at your side for reference. Listen and reflect on MartyrLoserKing’s experience, motives, and revolutionary action. MartyrLoserKing tells a modern epic through rap and spoken word, and it will undoubtedly leave you inspired to take action.