The opening two minutes of I’m New Here will stop you dead in your tracks. The intro ‘On Coming from a Broken Home’ glides in on a rip of Kanye West’s ‘Flashing Lights’ before Gil Scott-Heron gets a few things off his chest.
This is his first record since Spirits in 1994 and the last 16 years haven’t been kind – a nine-circle spiral of jail, addiction and illness that’s just about reduced him to mere Pieces of a Man. I’m New Here is Gil Scott-Heron’s long walk out of the wilderness.
Straight up, he makes no bones about how he got to be Here, 50-odd years since Lillie Scott (“not your room service typecast black grandmother”) raised him after he “moved in with her temporarily/ just until things were patched/ until this was patched, until that was patched/ until… I became the patch that held Lillie Scott”.
This “special tribute” is worlds away from his hectoring poetry and proto-rap from 1970 when he emerged as A New Black Poet, fist in the air, on his debut Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. A raging furnace, spitting out the bullshit from America’s “toilet bowl”, contrasting the deprivation of the ghetto with the alienating sight of ‘Whitey on the Moon’.
Four decades on, his call to arms ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ has been covered, sampled and referenced thousands of times, and his indelible fingerprints are all over popular culture – from Richard Pryor’s counterculture comedy and Public Enemy’s militant hip-hop, to Saul Williams’ spoken word forays and the rise of poetry slams worldwide. So he’s got a soul and a legacy worth saving, and XL label boss Richard Russell has taken a gamble that’s paid off.
In a move echoing Rick Rubin’s guiding hand on Johnny Cash, he visited the beaten poet in jail a few years ago and offered to sign him to XL and produce a record – an offer Gil couldn’t really afford to refuse. Like he says on the title track (a Smog cover): “No matter how far wrong you’ve gone/ you can always turn around.”
Gil once described his art as “bluesology – the science of how things feel”. This alchemy is present all over I’m New Here, whether it’s stark electronic string arrangements, simple acoustic strumming or raggedy piano that’s backing his weathered vocals. ‘I’ll Take Care of You’ is a bar-room lament that could jolt one of Tom Waits’s hobos into digging deep for small change, while ‘Where Did the Night Go’ is a paranoid tick-tock on a single distorted bass note, “as the clock washes midnight away’”.
‘Your Soul and Mine’ (a new take on his own poem ‘The Vulture’) and Robert Johnson’s ‘Me and the Devil’ are rebooted as stark dubstep and hip-hop soundscapes – the blues standards making the switch to digital without crashing.
Even though the tracks here, covers included, are explicitly autobiographical, it’s not some sort of phoney Oprah couch exorcism for Scott-Heron. In one of the album’s five spoken word interludes he admits: “If I hadn’t been as eccentric, as obnoxious, as arrogant, as aggressive, as introspective, as selfish… I wouldn’t be me.”
He’s not fishing for sympathy or shying away from his past: “I always feel like running/ not away, because there’s no such place.” These skits are just snatches of Scott-Heron shooting the breeze while Russell got the words on tape, maybe just in case. They punctuate the poems and songs perfectly and follow the same themes, of the artist holding up his hands and saying, ‘Hey, this is who I am.’
At 28 minutes, I’m New Here never feels like slim pickings – it’s taut, an emotional sucker punch, and inspired wailing blues like ‘New York Is Killing Me’ is proof that Gil Scott-Heron’s furnace is still stoked. I’m New Here feels like two fingers to his own prophecy; hopefully the revolution will be a rerun, brothers – this could be another shot at the title.
State Magazine, February 2010.