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This comeback might not be televised

By Danielle Gewurz

Section: Arts

February 12, 2010

Gil Scott-Heron’s first album in 13 years, following his release from prison where he spent several years on drug-related charges, “I’m New Here” proves the artist’s talent is still prodigious, even if his output isn’t.

The album, produced by the indie label XL, is a fast listen at just less than a half an hour and combines Scott-Heron’s classic spoken word style with hip hop and blues-tinged production and features four covers, several spoken interludes and originals.

Above all, “I’m New Here” is world-weary, with Scott-Heron turning away from the overtly political and using fairly conventional song structures and autobiographical reflections as the meat of the album’s thematic content. His voice has aged, but Scott-Heron employs his now graveled, gravitas-laden tones quite well, singing, speaking and whispering to glorious, moving effect.

The highlight of the album is without a doubt centerpiece “New York Is Killing Me,” a snap and clap heavy anthem that sounds like blues remixed or even a lot like Beck. Scott-Heron laments New York City, wishing for the simpler pleasures of the South; he’s “born in Chicago, but I go back home to Tennessee.” His plea, “Lord have mercy, have mercy on me,” is both a triumphant and despairing wail of a man who has seen too much.

The Scott-Heron who spoke clearly and forcefully about why “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is still there, but buried under the wisdom of hard living and age. That’s why one of the most fitting songs is a Robert Johnson cover, “Me and the Devil,” rendered with an electro-flare and resonant stomp.

Complete with an unexpected but deeply moving, cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” the titular track, “I’m New Here,” is a shockingly fitting Smog cover. There’s also the “I’ll Take Care of You” cover, and a cover of his own song “The Vulture,” both rendered with delightful resonance.

He turns both the covers and his own work into deeply personal tales, reflecting on his childhood (“I was raised by women, but they made me a man”) as well as his legacy (“If I hadn’t been as eccentric, as obnoxious, as arrogant, as aggressive, as introspective, as selfish, I wouldn’t be me, I wouldn’t be who I am”). It’s an entirely new approach, and a different type of work than his previous albums.

And the most surprising element of the album is how modern it is; Scott-Heron’s didacticisms have fallen by the wayside, and the production draws from electronica, dubstep, hip hop and blues to work with, rather than against, his voice. Indeed, the opening and closing tracks sample the instantly recognizable instrumental from Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights,” reversing Kanye’s sample of Scott-Heron’s “Home Is Where the Hatred Is.” Scott-Heron may have invented a sort of proto-rap, but here he makes a mélange of styles into something uniquely his own and incisively contemporary.

You can stream the entire album at gilscottheron.net.

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