“You haven’t experienced hip-hop until you’ve listened to Rakim on a rocky hilltop,” said poet/MC Saul Williams in his seminal 1998 polemic Twice the First Time, relocating the art form from the urban milieu that gave it birth and forcing us to reassess its possibilities.
Sault’s surprising and frequently superb sixth album is a similarly brave act of creative rebirth, swapping out their previous boundary-breaking work’s kaleidoscopic, razor-sharp funk/soul/rap/dub/whatever for an altogether new and unexpected paradigm.
Review of Sault Air
Despite their penchant for concealment, Dean Josiah Cover is now widely acknowledged as the leader of Sault. Cover, also known as Info, the producer of Michael Kiwanuka’s and Little Simz’s award-winning albums, would most likely live comfortably off his contributions to Adele’s 30 for the rest of his life. Air’s complete 180-degree turn feels like the work of an artist who, after establishing themselves in the pop sphere, decides it’s time to pursue their wildest ambitions.
Sault’s previous work combined shapeshifting, detail-perfect production with lyrics that turned the reality and revelations of the Black Lives Matter movement – police brutality, systematic racism – into addicting, electric pop.
Air, on the other hand, is largely silent, with Sault’s usual partners – Kiwanuka, Simz, Cleo Sol, and Kid Sister – missing. The Music Confectionery choir (who have previously sang with Ellie Goulding and Dave) has taken their place, along with an ensemble prepared by Rosie Danvers of string section Wired Strings.
The music is orchestral and beatless, with the group’s previously flawless grasp of groove relegated to the back of the closet. The seven pieces range in length from four to thirteen minutes. Air’s music has few antecedents in Cover’s past work – perhaps Kiwanuka’s spacey, leisurely glide on Black Man in a White World at a stretch.
Only one tune, Time Is Precious, contains lyrics: the angelic harmonies and symphonic wall of music give way to a soulful singing group expressing a simple but moving message about not wasting “the only time you’ve got here.” The remaining tracks’ titles primarily deal with the elements: Reality, Heart, Solar, and Air.
The music is unrepentantly uplifting, hopeful, and escapist, but the shadow of the reality it is attempting to – and the knowledge of the injustices its essential sense of optimism is seeking to overcome – lend Air a deeper resonance, as does much creativity by Black artists in the Black Lives Matter era. Heart’s blossoming horns – equal parts rousing anthem and swooning Motown ballad – sounding notes of sharp optimism.