It’s been 16 years since we’ve last heard a full record from Gil Scott-Heron. There is a completely new generation of artists who are deaf to his brilliance.The past 16 years have been rough on the Hip Hop forefather. There was multiple run-ins’s with the law, substance abuse issues, and a lack of new material. I’m New Here shows that Gil Scott-Heron’s writing never lost a step, and though his voice is nowhere near the powerful instrument it was, it still has emotive quality that grabs the listener and won’t let go.
The thumping musical introduction to the “Me And The Devil’ is only outdone by Gil Scott-Heron singing “Early this morning when you knocked upon the door / And I said Hello Satan, I believe it’s time to go.” It’s clear that from the start, Heron will be facing each of the issues that have surrounded him. He’s a fearless artist who isn’t afraid to conquer what other artists couldn’t. Covering Robert Johnson is one of those feats. More times than not, his classic catalogue is butchered by ambitious artists wanting to rework his magic (see John Mayer’s cover of “Crossroads”). To say that Gil Scott-Heron does it successfully is an understatement. He captures the conflicting nature that Robert Johnson sang with, and makes the sinister nature of the lyrics and their pain his own. Like with any great cover, the song is a variation of the classic Johnson tune. Even though you can here how time has worn on Gil Scott Heron’s vocal chords, it makes the track all the more hauntingly beautiful. He leaves behind his Jazz/Soul fusion that defined most of his previous work and uses a Electronic sound by XL Records’ owner/producer Richard Russell. Just as Kanye West sampled Heron on “My Way Home,” the original source returns the favor using “Flashing Lights” as a recurring album soundbed on I’m New Here. Only a prolific artist can pull off what Heron successfully does. He bares his soul, shows his mistakes without regret, but all the while understands that they are what has made him the man he is on this record.
The title track sees Gil Scott-Heron channeling his inner Tom Waits. It’s an adjustment for the listener who comes in with own expectations. It’s not one of the stronger efforts on the album, but give it a few plays and its value grows. With that said, it’s lyrically an exceptional song, and the lone acoustic guitar puts more emphasis on the lyrics. Regardless of what time has done to Gil Scott-Heron’s voice, he is still a virtuoso writer and poet. “Your Soul and Mine” is an unbelievable track. With haunting strings and percussion that compliments the words, Gil Scott-Heron delivers a stand-out effort that is as dark as it is poetic. The Spoken Word tracks on I’m New Here are all exceptional. The only complaint is that all of them may be too short but even that complaint sounds selfish when you dig into the content in those two minute poems.
“New York is Killing Me” is Gil Scott-Heron at his best. It’s Blues at it its purest essence. The building production that still has a stripped down quality provides a mere background for his withered voice. The content is out of this world and considering what Gil has been through since his last album; one can’t help but understand that it is extremely biographical. When he sings about longing to go back to Tennessee, you can see how city life and the obstacles that he has faced and often fell to, which have made him long for the slow and uncomplicated life of the country. It’s haunting hearing him sing, “Lord have mercy, have mercy on me.” He’s been to Hell and back, and I’m New Here gives the listener a first hand account of what was going on in his mind when incarceration, drugs and whatever else grabbed the headlines.
What has always made Gil Scott-Heron so brilliant and at the same time likable is ability to relate to the everyday man. The content of I’m New Here can be related to by all. Everyone has been in a place where each track holds a specific meaning to him or her. The incredible, “Where Did the Night Go?” can be felt from park bench emcees, to college students. “New York is Killing Me” will attract an audience of homesick grown men, to overwhelmed city dwellers. There is a universal vibe in all his work, a vibe that can be intensely personal or somehow sum up what is wrong/right or needed to be done in society.
Gil Scott-Heron makes a triumphant return on I’m New Here. He strays from his signature Jazz/Soul fusion and delivers a post-modern Blues record. The album falls in line with many Blues legends that continue to produce their best material later in their careers. Gil Scott-Heron understands the process of aging as an artist and he doesn’t attempt to make the same music he did on such classics as Pieces Of A Man. He understands where his choices have led him, but he stands fully capable of starting anew.