After a high-profile comeback album and a year that ended with him providing the outro to Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy LP, it remains to be seen if legendary spoken-word artist Gil Scott-Heron is actually invested in his “redemption.” A story last summer in the New Yorker seemed to suggest otherwise; it painted Scott-Heron as still using drugs and as a nervous, frantic guy. It’s unlikely he’ll ever conform to the easy stories that magazine editors could have pumped out following I’m New Here’s release last year.
His newfound label, XL, isn’t going to let Scott-Heron’s problems derail his current recording career, however; they got their number one it-boy, Jamie xx (known to his mom as Jamie Smith), the guy largely held responsible for the xx’s zoom-bip minimalism, to remix 13 of Scott-Heron’s songs and make it into the collaborative album, We’re New Here. Scott-Heron’s involvement was reportedly minimal, but this isn’t his show anyway: This is Jamie xx’s coming-out party, where his production is allowed to be on full display, removed of the songwriting of his xx bandmates. And that’s not always necessarily a good thing.
We’re New Here is, at best, a post-DJ Shadow found-sounds electronic album that has the benefit of having one source for vocals. “I’ll Take Care of You” builds a lush disco trackout of Scott-Heron’s vocals and Smith’s spacy beats, while old track “My Cloud” is given a neo-soul makeover and “NY Is Killing Me” is chopped and screwed into something completely different from the original. If Smith is really going to be doing tracks on the new Drake album, like the rapper said recently, he better show Young Money “Running,” the greatest hip-hop calling card in Smith’s pocket. Smith’s production is certainly unique, but as opposed to on XX, it’s only occasionally thrilling here.
But overall, there’s an overriding sense of inessentiality, as is the case with virtually every remix record. It’s good that XL, and label head Richard Russell, are this committed to keeping Scott-Heron in the consciousness of the blogs, but any hopes of his work with the label becoming the new version of Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series are pretty thoroughly dashed here. This isn’t as offensive and as bankrupt creatively as Johnny Cash Remixed, but it’s also not going to shed new light into Scott-Heron — or Smith, for that matter. What you read is what you get here: an album full of small Scott-Heron samples bolstered by production from a member of the xx. Nothing more, nothing less.