Forty years ago, Gil Scott-Heron planted a seed of lyrical revolution. Today, he’s back to reap and sow his radical insights with I’m New Here (out tomorrow!), his first album in almost 16 years. One of the most significant American poets of the past century, the 60-year-old high priest of proto-rap is as outspoken and unrepentant as when he first began his poetic crusade in the late 60s. His legendary acid jazz-rap and spoken word works of the 70s perhaps spawned present-day political hip hop and modern soul rap, but I’m New Here may very well spark an uprising all on its own.
As Scott-Heron was serving time for cocaine possession (his second time in prison for the drug), Richard Russell, head of XL Recordings, approached him in 2005 with all intentions of signing and producing him upon his release. With no new material since his time behind bars, Scott-Heron and Russell explored old short proses and songs to cover before they began recording in 2007. The two shifted away from Scott-Heron’s signature blues backdrop and embraced an eerie, minimalist electronic soundscape, an uncharted terrain for a man already known for innovation and change. The result was an album of four covers, some short poems and a number of interludes adding up to a meager but profound 28 minutes.
Robert Johnson’s “Me And The Devil” is without a doubt the album’s masterwork, and possibly one of Scott-Heron’s most powerful pieces to date. Opening with a fog of ominous bass and buzzing synth, hip-hop clap-hit begins a struggle-filled journey to the center of one’s own underworld. Scott-Heron’s strained yet overcoming voice sings of his inner-demons and the tiring struggle to keep them from taking over. He begins by howling “Early this mornin’, ooh, when you knocked upon my door. And I said, ‘Hello, Satan. I believe it’s time to go,'” before confronting his deep-rooted darkness face-on.
“Your Soul And Mine” is a battle dirge cover of Scott-Heron’s own blues ballad “The Vulture” (from 1970’s Small Talk at 125th and Lenox). Rooted with sorrowful strings and marching drums, he recycles his once soulfully sung lyrics for dark spoken-word, stripping the song down to its basic thematic essence of death and destruction. “Where Did The Night Go” is another poetic piece which deliberates the bleak realities of life. Entrancing, digeridoo-like synth is the only instrumental element featured, showcasing Scott-Heron’s experienced words as he contemplates the day-in, day-out routine of being a cog in the system of work and society.
The album’s longest track (4:30) “New York Is Killing Me” reawakens Scott-Heron’s simplistic beginnings. A fusion of railroad soul and wasteland blues, he pours out his worn-out soul alongside continuous clapping, minimal electronic bass, and an occasional clashing symbol. With the sparse addition of rusty guitar and sublte Trent Reznor-style horn synth, Scott-Heron ends the soon-to-be blues ballad with a female choir.
Overall, I’m New Here stares apathy dead-on, resurrecting the 70’s era crusade mentality, while addressing the issues of today’s broken humankind; hopefully inciting some sort of change in music and the world during this next year. Unfortunately, there’s no signs of Scott-Heron making an appareance in Seattle anytime soon. The closest thing he’s playing is Coachella on April 18. In the meantime, check out his web site and Myspace page for songs and videos spanning back over 40 years.