Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here

5 out of 10: Lacking polish, lacking direction, yet still reasonable

Gil Scott-Heron is one of the progenitors of rap. In his heyday, he was an angry, lyrical artist who eloquently catalogued the travails of African-Americans over what were usually sparse rhythms, quietly funky, that evoked the wilds of his enslaved forebears’ home continent.

Scott-Heron’s last album, the solid Spirits, was released in 1994. The years between then and now have not been kind: he’s spent them in and out of jail on drug charges as if a character in one of the stories he used to relate in his much-heralded musical past. Nevertheless, the years between then and now have added to the croaky, baritone resonance of his voice which render his poetic pronouncements so believable, urgent and soulful.

I’m New Here is Scott-Heron emerging from a dark place to find himself immersed in an unfamiliar world. Gone is the sound of defiance that was a hallmark of his earlier work, the sound of resignation taking its place. Unfortunately, much of that sound is created via humdrum electronica of the kind that’s preprogrammed into the latest piece of gadgetry. His lyrical themes, of death, of lives wasted, of heartbreak, take on a tacky hue with such accompaniment, a maudlin evocation of downcast subject matter.

The departures from baleful electronica are highlights, however: I’ll Take Care of You is a stand out, stark and affecting; while the messy handclap loop and Scott-Heron’s ragged vocals on New York is Killing Me feels exactly like the confusion of a mind recoiling from too much big-city stimulus.

I’m New Here is more a passable return rather than a triumphant one: it’s too short, it feels hastily put together and it lacks polish. Sixty-one years of age and now out of jail, one hopes Scott-Heron remains that way, at least so his next album can be the triumph that we know he’s capable of producing.

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