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. No, don’t mess around either, it is and will be one of the best recordings of the entire year and decade. Call it crazy but that is one amazing accomplishment and one that not only places Scott-Heron back into his classic status but it leaves you wondering just how many people still don’t know about him. Everything about I’m New Here is downright flawless that it should be vitally remembered for years and years to come. And it’s not music that should be taken lightly; Scott-Heron is looking forward at what life still has to offer and he’s brutally honest.
Always dark and always menacing, the Chicago-native starts things off by borrowing from another Chicago son, Kanye West and his melody from “Flashing Lights.” Describing how he came from a broken home, allegedly, Scott-Heron is again, at the top of his game. His lines are direct and heartfelt but they’re never that easy; he finds a way to bring forward the heart of Americana into a soulful and heart-wrenching story. His grandmother wasn’t like the other black grandmothers and as we later find out in the second part, it wasn’t a broken home but in reverse, a blessing to be raised this way: “I came from what they called a broken home,” Scott-Heron corrects.
Ironically titled, I’m New Here plays on many different factors in Scott-Heron’s life. He’s new in the sense that he hasn’t been here in such a long time, he’s new to the role in combining so many different elements – everything from gospel, to folk, to soul, to electronic, to R&B, to Southern country – and he’s new to working with producer and XL Recordings head, Richard Russell. The two met when Russell approached Scott-Heron with the idea of making new music and he responded with what is some of the strongest music of his career. Never filtered, always focused and all in all, rousing and gripping, the music flowing out of I’m New Here is the kind of stuff only legends are capable of – so what’d you really expect?
At some point, you’d want to cater yourself in checking out the site they specifically created for the album (it’s re-directed when you go to Scott-Heron’s own website.) The videos of the first single, “Me and the Devil,” can be seen there, as well as footage of Scott-Heron recording some of the spoken dialogue for the album. His swagger is unmatched and although he’s a grizzled veteran and no longer a young cat, his presentation is remarkable. The interludes find moments of humor, regret, looking towards the future, reminiscing and even sharing life lessons. Each is interspersed between the other songs on the album and those, with Russell’s careful touch, are lightly constructed. Whether they call for the artist to sing out in full force, to speak and sing towards the background of a light guitar or sample, or even, on “Where Did the Night Go,” with clamoring music like something Portishead could create, they add dimension and diversity that is all too valuable.
There’s something special happening here and it’s coming from a well-respected and loved source. With everything inside of me, I am desperately trying to reach Coachella in April just so I can see this man present this music in a live setting. I’m New Here is an outstanding album and one of beauty and substance and for the first time in fifteen years, Scott-Heron is back. He leaves us by acknowledging his grandmother with a heartfelt recognition, “I am a man, God bless you mama and thank you.” And we thank each of them, for all they have already given us and continue to give us.