What is the value of endurance? In a musical environment where bands go from buzzed-about to backlash in 24 hours, simply persisting is an accomplishment. In this climate, that a performer can evolve as an artist 40 years into his career is a miracle.
And so it is with Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here, his first album in more than 15 years. In just under 30 minutes, the 60-year-old Scott-Heron moves masterfully from spoken-word poetry to plaintive balladry. The re-emergence of Scott-Heron — the man who famously said “the revolution will not be televised,” the man who has been referred to as the godfather of rap — is a profound statement.
In some ways, the album’s very existence is nothing short of remarkable. Apparently XL Recordings‘ owner and producer Richard Russell had to be mighty persistent in order to persuade Scott-Heron to record again. When the two first met, they had to communicate with a partition between them and prison guards hovering over them — Scott-Heron was in the midst of a year-long, drug-related stint at Riker’s Island. The fact that the record is as good as it is is a testament to the music-industry honchos who still have a real love and appreciation for the art form.
One reason for the album’s success is its apparent modesty. Instead of opting for slick and lavish production and choking the album with guest appearances (see Santana‘s Supernatural for a case study in this type of mass-appeal, crossover comeback), I’m New Here is a relatively lo-fidelity affair. Scott-Heron exudes hipness without ever trying, covering, for example, Robert Johnson and Bill Callahan in the album’s first tracks and making both songs his own. Elsewhere, he references his first LP, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, on “Your Soul And Mine,” with a spoken-word piece backed by moody, minimal beats that give Burial a run for his money.
Scott-Heron plays it straight on “I’ll Take Care Of You,” by R&B crooner Brook Benton. Spooked piano and tasteful string arrangements back up Scott-Heron’s rough, evocative vocals and recall the production that catapulted Bob Dylan back into the spotlight on 1997’s late-career masterpiece, Time Out of Mind. First single “New York Is Killin’ Me” cruises by on little more than handclaps, buried backing vocals, and Scott-Heron’s grizzled vocals.
Although the production on I’m Not There is always involving, the lyrical content of the record is just as important. Repeated listens offer deeper insight into autobiographical ruminations and reveal the record as a tribute to the women in Scott-Heron’s life and how their love and support shaped him. In short, I’m New Here is the perfect comeback album, deploying modern production in the service of timeless songcraft and personal vision.