Somehow, the mysterious British R&B/electronic-ish combo Sault has managed to drop four richly diverse, socially confrontational albums, all of them good and two of them absolutely great, in just 18 months. Their willful anonymity would be annoying or pretentious if the music weren’t so good and if it weren’t in service to their powerful, Black-centric messaging.
Sault’s sound is almost a showcase for the past 50 years of Black music: There are traces of early ‘70s R&B, Philly soul, disco, British R&B ranging from Soul II Soul to Massive Attack, jazzy grooves, several strains of African music, chants, sweeping string arrangements and even moments reminiscent of legendary NYC DJs Masters at Work — and it’s all mixed together with the fluidity and topicality of a great DJ. The music segues smoothly from one style to another, often connected with spoken-word passages (rather than rapping), nearly all of which are advancing strongly worded Black perspectives.
Remarkably for music made in such a short time span, the albums are quite different from each other, although identifiably made by the same musicians. This one is Sault’s most accessible to date, with the harder, more angular rhythms of the previous “Untitled (Black Is)” replaced by driving, danceable grooves and more approachable melodies — at least, until moments like when you realize, in the middle of the fast and hard-driving “I Just Want to Dance,” that the lyrics have moved abruptly from dancefloor-loving lines like the title to “We lost another life” to “Why do my people always die?” Or when you’re eased into the beautiful closer, “Little Boy,” which has a gentle vibe similar to Johnny Nash’s 1972 hit “I Can See Clearly Now,” with the lines, “Little boy, when you get older… I’ll tell you the truth about the boys in blue.” Or when you realize that the chorus over the easy, jazzy grooves of “Uncomfortable” is saying “Why do you keep shooting us?”
That uneasy juxtaposition between pleasure and pain makes it difficult to enjoy the music unselfconsciously, without checking multiple privileges. And you get the feeling that’s exactly what the creators have in mind — no coincidence there’s a song called “Uncomfortable.” (And the messaging is often not subtle at all: “You Know It Ain’t” is a series one-liners, over comically corny ‘70s-style music, like “Yeah, I see your little post, talking ’bout ‘BLM is my motto’ — but you know it ain’t… Hundreds of years later and still you think your guilt is ours to bear — but you know it ain’t.”)
Who exactly is in Sault is intentionally mysterious — a friendly but secretive rep for the group would only confirm that the information in Thursday’s Guardian review is generally accurate — but a dive into the album credits on Tidal (which has by far the most detailed credits of any streaming service, by the way) reveals production and songwriting credits on every song for Inflo (Dean Josiah Cover), who has worked with Little Simz, Michael Kiwanuka and Jungle, along with singer Cleo Sol (Cleopatra Nikolic), a Melissa Young (who may be Chicago rapper Kid Sister?) or Kadeem Clarke on several others.
But the point seems to be that who made this music and these words is not the point: The message and the music are, and any other information is an unnecessary distraction. And the fact that Sault seduces listeners, drawing them in with beautiful sounds, and then hits them with uncompromisingly direct lyrics and messages that startle them into thinking about things they might not normally think about, especially when grooving to music, is perhaps the greatest triumph. Sault’s music is definitively 2020, by, for and about these times.