There's two novel ideas at work behind this album, but only one of them's getting much attention. Trent Reznor has been pretty upfront recently about his general disdain with the way the music industry works, encouraging concertgoers to share his music and going public with his irritation at the cost of his own CDs. It became apparent once Reznor parted ways with Interscope that he'd be looking for a new business plan that would circumvent your garden-variety industry bullshit. All it took to set a solid-enough precedent was Radiohead's pay-what-you-want model for In Rainbows-- after that, the "try it for free; pay $5 if you like it and you get to download higher-quality audio files" plan for the new Saul Williams album The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! was enough to get some attention all by itself.
But the other novel idea, being overlooked in lieu of the distribution plan, is the album's stylistic approach. Saul Williams, despite being more of a straight-up poet than an MC, is one of those rare artists who justifies the notion of a hip-hop/rock interchange in a post-nu-metal world. His aggression is focused, pointed, and self-aware enough to avoid falling into temper-tantrum emptiness, and it's backed by music that focuses on the aesthetic slipperiness of heavy rock's capabilities. After 2001's Rick Rubin-produced Amethyst Rock Star and his self-titled 2004 record (featuring guest spots from Zack de la Rocha and Serj Tankian), it isn't a shock that Williams paired up with Reznor for this new album-- especially considering Saul's opened for Nine Inch Nails on more than one tour over the last couple of years. But to hear Williams' firebrand rhetoric about black identity delivered over an album filled with punk and industrial undercurrents-- and to hear Reznor infuse those undercurrents with moments of hip-hop inspiration ranging from Southern bounce to straight-up Public Enemy tributes-- is eye-opening.
As for whether it results in an entertaining record, well, that probably depends on whether you like to be less comfortable going out of an album than you are coming in. There's plenty about the production for NiggyTardust! that makes it initially accessible-- opening track "Black History Month" makes like a drumline facing off against skyscraper subwoofers; there's a touch of Timbaland gone malicious in the supple but abrasive electro-bounce of tracks like "The Ritual" and "Break"; there's even a semi-faithful cover of U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" stripped down to the rhythm and augmented with flashes of buzzing synth. But those moments don't sustain or define the album as much as the anxious, creeping-tension moments do; apparently Trent put together the bulk of NiggyTardust!'s beats with the ingredients he left out of Year Zero for not being immediate enough. The slow-grower songs, like the Boards of Canada soundalike "No One Ever Does", the sleepy, minimalist, dying-808 pulse of "Raw" and its clangy, semi-organic counterpart "Skin of a Drum", mostly act as rhythms for Williams' voice to ricochet off. And even when the production gets intense (the post-rock-vs.-Neptunes clamor of "Convict Colony"; the classic Downward Spiral-isms of dirge "Raised to be Lowered"), Saul's voice still acts as the dominant instrument-- wailing, murmuring, jousting sneeringly with his own overdubbed voice, and even veering fascinatingly close to Reznor's own stylings; credits notwithstanding I'm still not 100% convinced it's not actually Trent singing on "Banged and Blown Through", which attests to Williams' versatility as a singer.