If an album drops in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it really make a sound? This could be the philosophical query of a new musical age as digital downloading becomes the primary form of distribution.
Produced by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, the third album by the fiery political poet and rapper Saul Williams was released last November via the Web because no major record company was interested. Listeners could download the music for free as mid-fidelity MP3s or pay $5 for one of three higher-fidelity formats -- a twist on Radiohead’s “pay what you think it’s worth” release of “In Rainbows.” The difference was that while the majority of Radiohead fans are thought to have paid an average of $10 for their heroes’ music -- an industry guesstimate, since the band hasn’t released any official numbers -- Reznor revealed last week that only 18 percent of the people who downloaded Williams’ album paid, while the rest took it for free.
If Williams was counting on the revenue from sales of his recordings, he lost out, but that’s unlikely: His main claim to fame is as a galvanizing live performer. A bigger loss, however, was that this album didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. With Reznor’s minimalist industrial/electronic percussion serving as a wildly inventive musical backing for Wiliams’ impressionistic lyrics surveying the ugly realities of life as an African-American in the new millennium, “Niggy Tardust” (a title that cheekily references David Bowie’s concept album “Ziggy Stardust”) was one of the best hip-hop releases of 2007.
What’s more, from its wonderfully recontextualized cover of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” through breathtaking originals such as “Convict Colony” and “Skin of a Drum,” Williams and Reznor prove that there may still be some life in the seemingly bankrupt genre of rap-rock -- at least if the artists are as creative as this memorable team.