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 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.
The saddest thing about "Liverpool 8," a title that references the neighborhood where the former Richard Starkey grew up, is that its nominal creator isn't above exploiting that same sad Fab Four nostalgia with near-pathetic artlessness. "In U.S.A. when we played Shea/We were number one/Man it was fun/When I look back, it sure was cool/For those boys from Liverpool," he croaks in the autobiographical title track, which opens the disc. And things only get worse from there.
As producer Dave Stewart hoses down the buoyant but unoriginal pop ditties with soulless studio gloss, smarmy strings and liberal use of pitch correction on the vocals, dear ol' Ringo rasps and drones about the things he's done "For Love"; what "Love Is"; the value of "Tuff Love" and what he'll deliver "If It's Love That You Want," proving once again that with a universe of topics to sing about, the love song is the last refuge of the artistically bankrupt, the unimaginative or the just plain lazy.
Listen, I'll defend Mr. Starr to my dying breath as one of the greatest drummers in the history of rock -- a minimalist, to be sure, but a supremely tasteful musician with an unfailing ear for providing the absolutely perfect percussive contribution to any recording. As a solo artist, however, we have to be honest: He always got by with more than a little help from his friends, and they have certainly failed him here.