Release Date: Feb 9, 2010
Record label: XL
Genre(s): Rap, R&B, Blues
Without thought or reasoning, the new Gil Scott-Heron record seems to call to me at night. It makes sense there, in that sweet spot of the evening where the irritations daylight brings have faded away, and the dark, still night seems to hold possibilities other than recovery. Possibilities of introspection and recrimination, and the many other things which tend to happen at night.
If Gil Scott-Heron is anything other than brilliant, he’s striking. My first exposure to Mr. Scott-Heron was through a greatest hits compilation, his song Whitey On The Moon a contained but irate dig at American expenditure and, for me, a window into that world of 1970s pre-hip-hop African American poetic dissidence. The words were great, but I was more taken with his delivery, Scott-Heron’s jazzy articulation and his angry and youthful language finding resonance with his audience, but also with anyone willing to listen.The voice of Gil Scott-Heron signaled a creative and societal uprising, or at the very least a social consciousness within and outside of the inner city.
There were few voices that articulated the anxious, fractured state of America in the 1970s and early 80s as well as the clear baritone of Gil Scott-Heron. As a spoken-word artist and poet, he could pinpoint the fissures in the American dream and exorcise them with a wit that blended righteous anger and arch sarcasm. As a singer he could envelop those same uncomfortable confrontations in a rich, emotional tone that brought out the empathetic face of unrest.
A triumphant, if unlikely, comeback After years of crime and punishment, casual obscurity and a half-sung hip-hop canonization, Gil Scott-Heron has released a new album. On it, he covers Smog, enlists a guitarist from Oakley Hall, samples Kanye West and invokes Burial, all with a scant sniff of regard for what anyone might have to say about it. The prophet of revolution smolders deeper into himself—a gnarled, wise tree in an urban glade.
In 1994, a record producer/label executive coaxed a down-on-his-luck legend back into the studio. The resultant record of dark and sombre tones marked a change of direction, introduced the ageing artist to a new generation and prepped his career for a glorious Indian summer. But enough about Johnny Cash. Gil Scott-Heron, perhaps the most influential American poet of the past four decades, last released an album, Spirits, that same year.
In his 1970s heyday, the poet-musician dubbed The Godfather of rap would rail about substance abuse on The Bottle and Angel Dust. However, for most of the last decade, his life has mirrored those songs: arrests, imprisonment and drug-dependency programmes. His first album in 16 years offers a way back from the wilderness. XL's Richard Russell – who signed the artist as he languished in Rikers Island jail – frames Scott-Heron's ravaged ruminations on "broken homes" and the like against an eerie backdrop of minimalist electro and bass.
Often cited as the godfather of rap, Gil Scott-Heron is one of those artists who’s more referenced than listened to, a barely commercial poet who created difficult music, uncompromising political numbers that hedged the border between song and spoken word. Mostly silent for the last 25 years, spending a portion of the last decade in jail, I’m New Here is his comeback. That it’s not a facile cash-in effort, padded with guest stars and easy melodies, speaks for the gritty insistence of the man, who once served as the nagging pebble in soul’s conscious but cocky stride.
I’m New Here is a shock. It’s a wallop filled with big nasty beats, a wide range of sonic atmospheres, and more -- sometimes unintentional -- autobiographical intimacy than we’ve heard from Gil Scott-Heron than ever before. Produced by XL Recordings head Richard Russell, I’m New Here is his first record in 16 years. It is a scant 28 minutes and doesn’t need to be a second longer.
“Being blessed is not just being able to float on air. I mean, if you gotta pay for things you’ve done wrong, I got a big bill coming,” Gil Scott-Heron intones on “Being Blessed,” one of several interludes on his first studio album in 16 years, I’m New Here. The line is telling and evocative of the album as a whole; Scott-Heron, the “godfather of rap,” may have built his reputation on fiery political poetics, but there’s no righteous indignation like “Whitie on the Moon” or “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” here.
It's surprising that this album exists at all, let alone that it's easily one of the best of Gil Scott-Heron's career. The legendary spoken word artist and grandfather of political hip-hop hasn't released an album for 16 years, having spent much of that time in and out of jail and rehab. Most of us had given up on hearing new music from him again, but thankfully XL Recordings owner Richard Russell decided to take a chance and tracked him down in prison.
What is the value of endurance? In a musical environment where bands go from buzzed-about to backlash in 24 hours, simply persisting is an accomplishment. In this climate, that a performer can evolve as an artist 40 years into his career is a miracle. And so it is with Gil Scott-Heron's I'm New Here, his first album in more than 15 years. In just under 30 minutes, the 60-year-old Scott-Heron moves masterfully from spoken-word poetry to plaintive balladry.
In the early 1970s, Gil Scott-Heron popped onto the scene as a soul poet with jazz leanings; not just another Bill Withers, but a political voice with a poet’s skill. His spoken-voice work had punch and topicality. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Johannesburg” were calls to action: Stokely Carmichael if he’d had the groove of Ray Charles.
Imagine yourself for a moment as one of the leading pioneers of hip-hop music. Crowned by many as the sole reason for rap’s creation and seen by many as an integral figure in the betterment of their lives, Gil Scott-Heron was cut from a different cloth. The spoken-word wonder, the towering figure; he’s spent much of his life in spreading messages across the channel waves regarding social statuses, class order, civil rights and somewhere in between, was branded as the “Black Bob Dylan.” Now, imagine taking fifteen years off and returning with a new album, I’m New Here, and it being one of the best recordings of the year.
An unlikely but triumphant return, packed full of sadness and experience. Nick Neyland 2010 It’s been a long, hard road to redemption for Gil Scott-Heron, the influential musician, poet and author, whose last full-length album, Spirits, was released 16 years ago. In the interim, he’s been in and out of jail on various drug-related offences, his taste for narcotics sapping the creative impulses that once burned so brightly.