Gil Scott-Heron. (XL Recording, 2010)


Gil Scott-Heron is not new here, but newly wintry.  He’s come back not to point to urban poverty amidst moon-bound “whiteys” or to emcee our “live” revolution; he’s come back not to funk-scorn the bottle’s hold on the hood or to winterize junkie nightmares.  He’s not here to slam Elvis as white power’s cheap Chuck Berry and righteously strip away Janis Joplin’s black mask.  He may still hold fast to his Free Will, Nixon-era song-claim, that white cultural appropriation “Ain’t No New Thing” in this America of “always the same old shit,” and he may have designed the bare threads of politics on the new album as a symptom of our depoliticized present—but, if so, he’s not letting on. He’s back in a lanky, cigarette smoking cover close-up, his now worn baritone spread out by the moody electronic musings of England’s Richard Russell (with help from Chris Cunnigham and Damon Albarn), to sing/poetize a heavy joke:  I’m New Here is an album of borrowings and indebtedness.  In it, Scott-Heron covers Smog’s “I’m New Here” (the album’s ironic centerpiece), Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil,” and Brook Benton’s “I’ll Take Care of You” (the closest we get to his mid-70’s sound).  He samples Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights” as melancholic soundscape for “On Coming from a Broken Home,” the two-part spoken word poem that bookends the album.  It’s an exacting nod to Kanye’s own heavy lifting from Scott-Heron’s classic “Winter in America” for Late Registration’s “My Way Home.”  In this sampled acknowledgement of his status as “the godfather of rap,” he takes a few bars from the takers, but he’s also plucking fragments from his past lives.  The album’s bookending device is drawn directly from 1974’s Winter in America, an album that also doubles as thematic reference for I’m New Here in its flights from the semi-rural South to urban North and back again, its critique of the oppressed, half-lives of the black urban poor cut with a tense nostalgia for home, and its gritty confessionalism tinged with regret. “The Vulture,” his allegorical spoken word piece on inner-city privation from his first album, A New Black Poet:  Small Talk at 125th and Lennox (1970), returns in its original form but bears a new, less menacing title:  “Your Soul and Mine.”  The album criticizes the racist, subordinating position of the infamous Moynihan Report that pathologized black family life (“women-folk raised me / and I was full grown before I knew / I came from a broken home”).  Gil Scott-Heron is still the voice of the unresolved historical struggles of the 1960s.  In the 1980s, Amiri Baraka wrote:  “Gil has us humming and singing about Third World Revolution or how those racists are going to be driven into the sea when they have to get out of Johannesburg.”  I’m New Here is not a revolutionary album; it crackles with dystopian notes that conjure the present of America’s ongoing winter, but with an interwoven utopian longing.  It will not go better with Coke.

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