Ater the November digital release of Saul Williams' latest album, The Rise and Inevitable Liberation of NiggyTardust!, producer Trent Reznor was disheartened.
Reznor had masterminded the Radiohead-esque plan of letting listeners choose between getting Williams' album for free or contributing $5 for a higher-quality download. The overwhelming majority of the 150,000 downloaders had chosen the former option, which caused Reznor to glumly remark to CNET News in January that the idea "was wrong in my head, and for once I've given people too much credit."
Williams, however, remains thrilled with the results of the experiment. The highly regarded spoken-word poet, actor, and rapper/singer says the project has introduced thousands of new people to his music, and created fervent demand for his tour. Further, the unique arrangement put money into his pocket much faster than a traditional record release would have. "I would be living off an advance right now, rather than actually living off the proceeds of the album," he says.
Though NiggyTardust! lacks anything even remotely radio friendly — other than, perhaps, its cover of U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" — it remains a compelling, atmospheric work, and was named on a number of critics' year-end top ten lists. An unclassifiable hodgepodge of hip-hop, dance, industrial, and rock music, it plays loosely with the concept of David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, exploring racial issues the way Ziggy Stardust delved into gender. The narrative sees the title character fight personal demons within a rocky, hallucinogenic landscape, borrowing themes from Williams' most compelling spoken-word performances.
The project began to coalesce in 2006 via conversations Williams and Reznor had while the former toured with the latter's band, Nine Inch Nails. Reznor was embroiled in a dispute with his longtime label, Interscope, and with NiggyTardust! decided to swear off majors once and for all. Reznor nonetheless appears to have abandoned the idea of releasing entire albums for free since then. He recently announced that NIN's new collection of instrumentals, Ghosts I-IV, will be available in a number of different formats at different price points, and that only the first nine tracks can be legally downloaded for free.
But, via a fairly outlandish metaphor, Williams says a project's artistic merit should dwarf any concerns about its financial viability: "Let's say you have the cure for AIDS, for example. Are you going to be really mad that not enough people paid for it? Or are you going to be pleased about the fact that you were able to heal so many people?"
He adds that the album's vivid imagery has many fans excited for his live show, which he promises will feature plenty of effects and high drama. "This was an opportunity for me to delve back into my theatrical experience — I'm a big believer in the role of theater in creating change and spectacle and entertainment all at the same time," he says.
Williams is also gearing up for a physical release of Niggy-Tardust! on the Fader label. It will contain about seven new songs, which he contends will up the ante on an already fairly explosive work. The release should be available by late spring or early summer. "I don't know if I did it on purpose, but the more I listen to them, the more I realize that I saved the most hardcore, the most dance-y, and thought-provoking tracks for the physical release," he says.
"I would call [the new songs] thought-provoking," he concludes with a sly laugh. "There's a lot of fun stuff."