In a recent essay for Harper’s magazine the author Garth Greenwell wrote about his problem with creating work that is described as “relevant”. He argued that there is “something demeaning about approaching art from a predetermined angle”, and that increasingly artists are being asked if their work is timely and therefore of importance.
No one knows whether Sault were asking themselves that question when they made Untitled (Black Is), the first of two incredible albums they put out this year. (The second, Untitled (Rise), came in at No 25 in our list.) Their motivations are opaque: the music tends to arrive with little more than a day’s notice and no information regarding the band’s members. Only later was it revealed that the collective included Little Simz producer Inflo, London-based vocalist Cleo Sol, the Chicago rapper Kid Sister and guests such as Mercury prize-winner Michael Kiwanuka. The album’s Juneteenth release date sent certain signals, but the music is our main clue as to their mindset.
Untitled (Black Is) is weapons-grade R&B: rugged, soulful and unapologetically Black. Lyrically, it’s steeped in imagery drawn from our present moment. The standout track, the anthemic Wildfires, is pulled from the headlines – with George Floyd’s death and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests haunting every line: “Thief in the night, tell the truth / White lives, spreading lies / You should be ashamed / The bloodshed on your hands / Another man / Take off your badge / We all know it was murder / Murder, murder, murder.”
That might sound on the nose, but the first thing that hits you is the quality of the songwriting and production. Then the message falls like a feather, not a brick. The music shares similarities with the visual art of Arthur Jafa and Kahlil Joseph, whose collages – such as Jafa’s Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death – assemble, juxtapose and remix ideas of Blackness. Images of preachers and high-school drum ensembles are interspersed with news clips of athletes and political activists. Sault’s music oscillates to all corners of Black culture’s past: from defiant breakbeats (Stop Dem) and spoken word (X, Us) to high-life guitar lines (Don’t Shoot Guns Down, Bow) and mutated gospel (Pray Up Stay Up, Eternal Life).
Simon Reynolds’s theory of the hardcore continuum – the idea that British dance music has consistently drawn from a well of Black cultural influences while evolving into everything from drum’n’bass to British techno – characterises the movement as “a bumpy but exhilarating ride, but let no one doubt that it’s the same rollercoaster at every stage of the journey”. Untitled (Black Is) places you on that ride: well-aware of its lineage and capable of luxuriating in it.
In a way there’s nothing timely about Sault’s work. It could have come at any period in the last 30 years: the sounds have existed and so have the stories that inspired the lyrics. I’d argue this is timeless music that continues the tradition of Black rebel sounds that started in Africa, were honed in the Caribbean and packaged for the world as soul, R&B and funk in the US. One of the greatest compliments you can pay Sault’s work is that it sounds like what has come before: not derivative of, but complementary to its forebears. And what a legacy they had to choose from. As the album’s opening lyrics go: “When everything else fails, Black endures.”