Yeah, that’s right…the man has finally come around.
First things first: Gil Scott-Heron’s influence on Hip Hop and Neo-Soul is incalculable; next to James Brown and George Clinton, it is perfectly acceptable to consider Scott-Heron the Godfather of those genres, captivating and inspiring generations with a powerful mixture of gritty, rhythmic, conscious poetics and funky, jazz-inflected musical backdrops. We all know (or should know) the classics; “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” “The Bottle,” “Whitey on the Moon,” just to name a few. Known for his fiery, incendiary observations of the sociopolitical state of black America, it’s certainly all the more heartbreaking to have seen this incredible musician and activist succumb to many of the social ills he’d spent so much time railing against, and had tried so desperately to steer others away from. Since 1994, drug problems and a slew of stints in prison have derailed the man’s career and mission, ironically coinciding with the unprecedented and ever-growing success of the very genres he inspired. And all of this makes Scott-Heron’s new album, I’m New Here, all the more stunning; not since the Rick Rubin-assisted resurrection of Johnny Cash’s legendary (and, by the earlier 90’s, similarly derailed) career has an older, seemingly past-their-prime artist returned with something so haunting, so vital, and so unequivocably brilliant.
The title of the album, coupled with its sparse, brittle, electronic production, perfectly captures the essence of Scott-Heron’s position in today’s musical landscape; Completely eschewing the funk and jazz-based sound for which he’s known, I’m New Here sounds more akin to Portishead, or Nine Inch Nails even; it’s as if he just woke up after 20 years to find himself in a familiar, yet very new and strange land. The production sounds bitter and cold, confused and raw, brilliantly encapsulating a dichotomous, overpowering sense of regret and defiance; urgency because of the time that has been lost. “On Coming From A Broken Home (Part 1 & 2),” the intro and outro that bookend I’m New Here, are ironically rendered by a hilarious and most-fitting decision to utilize a sample from Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights” (which, of course, samples Curtis Mayfield) to anchor both songs, and therefore to bookend the entire album, effectively calling attention to the bizarre contrast between the frequent usage of Scott-Heron as sampling material by many Hip Hop artists, and Scott-Heron’s strange, alienated relationship with this new, unfamiliar generation.
As arresting as ever, Gil Scott-Heron’s voice sounds incredibly rich; weathered by hard living, and downright smoldering with wisdom and experience. And rather than accosting the many facets of injustice present in our society today, Scott-Heron courageously mines the ways in which he has treated himself unjustly, spewing the depths of his sorrow in at times brutal detail. Your blood will run ice cold when he starkly proclaims “The savage beast that so soothed his brain/has reared its ugly head/and staked its claim” on the ominous “The Crutch,” and when he tells you he’s been taking a long, ill-fated stroll with Lucifer on the haunting, slow burning “Me and the Devil,” you won’t dare doubt the man’s sincerity. The acoustic-based, meditative title track (originally written and recordedby Smog) is another highlight, with Scott-Heron hopefully and assuredly asserting his vitality and resilience, proclaiming “No matter how far gone you’ve gone/you can always turn around.” But without question, the standout here is the absolutely fascinating “New York Is Killing Me,” with its sparse, gospel-tinged, handclap-assisted arrangement perfectly supporting Scott-Heron’s bluesy lament on the unforgiving nature of the Big Apple; he croons “It’s got eight million people and I didn’t have a single friend/don’t you know, don’t you know/New York is killing me.”
I’m New Here runs exceptionally short (a scant 28 minutes, to be exact) and contains five brief interludes that don’t seem all that important at first, but these factors actually succeed in giving the record a focused, yet freewheeling quality; the album feels exhilaratingly messy (ala Cody Chesnutt’s “The Headphone Masterpiece”), yet you won’t find even a second of wasted space either. In fact, it’s truly shocking that an album that has basically come out of nowhere, from a man most people had completely written off, could be executed with such vision, intensity and excellence. This is the album Mos Def wanted to make with The New Danger, and it’s the record Dame Dash and the Black Keys tried to make with their Blakroc project.
But they didn’t…because Gil Scott-Heron, the Godfather of Hip Hop and Neo-Soul, did. You may hear an album this year that you “enjoy” more than I’m New Here, but you’ll be hardpressed to find anything as fascinating and real.
Oh yes, the man has most certainly come around.