Gil-Scott Heron is hip-hop (among other things). In his first album since 1994’s Spirits, the innovative and soulful singer/poet plucks from the genre he had a hand in crafting and emerges with an album of emotionally impacting and brilliantly written songs (and spoken word performances) that reflect the culture and leanings of a generation that Scott-Heron, at 60 years old, is far removed from but is eternally in sync with.
While not your traditional hip-hop record by any means, when guys like Kanye West and Kid Cudi switch their tones and perform with a more “sing-song” style, then Scott-Heron’s experimentation has to be heralded. Like he did so many years ago, Scott-Heron is presenting a blueprint. While most hip-hop goes for big production values, songs like “Running” feature light effects and rhythm that bangs eternally. He’s demonstrating the power of his voice, that rhythm and cadence are enough to get a point across about pain and suffering and the trials of life. “The Crutch”, with the slight increase of his delivery, the vocodered to hell vocals with echoes peppered lightly, and the musical interlude that builds from his vocals into something dark and primitive that was still spun by a computer, is a great example of the minimalism required to innovate. The use of West’s “Flashing Lights” looped over and over for both parts of “On Coming From A Broken Home” aren’t because it’s a catchy beat. It’s a bit of the old school giving the thumbs up to the new school while using the same hand to move them aside to show how it’s done.
“I’ll Take Care of You” best demonstrates Scott-Heron’s vocal power. There’s no mistaking the years of heartache and wisdom behind his visceral style. It strains with every note, but it’s mesmerizing to see how long he can keep it up; and yes, he never disappoints. But the spoken word performances dominate most of the album. Scott-Heron once again keeps it interesting with the kid gloves. In “Your Soul and Mine”, he plays with silence and tweaks his inflection to match the impending sense of doom. And the bursts of pained singing are that much more excruciating with the pauses in “Me And The Devil”.
Scott-Heron bookmarks I’m New Here with dedications to his grandmother, Lillie Scott, the woman who raised him. The rest of the album is full of meditations on everything from the loneliness of the human condition to love in all its dark and disappointing lows — and equally painful highs — to the tiny words of wisdom that leak from the interludes, like the importance of being yourself regardless of how bad that is. The five interludes in all are no more than 20 seconds a piece, but their influence is so much greater. Scott-Heron’s raspy voice and cadence are enough of a musical instrument to make these songs. Plus, the unrehearsed and impromptu nature offer listeners a break and some brevity while at the same time furthering the insight into the man himself.
“Where Did The Night Go” is a bastard child of a song and an interlude; its brevity makes the frustration Scott-Heron suffers through that much more poignant. It’s just long enough to let that angry drum beat buzz off into eternity, making his disgust that much more palpable. In “New York Is Killing Me”, he cries foul on the fast-paced living of the Big Apple to the beat of old hands clapping. With minor touches of some heavily distorted humming and the more menacing pop of some bass, it’s a blast from the past fused with the energy that modern production allows. In all though, the intro and end track, and the decades of pain in between, paint a picture that, despite it all, reveal he is a man because of the women who raised him, in addition to his experiences, both good or bad. And judging from this album, it’s mostly for the good.
I’m New Here