“Being blessed is not just being able to float on air. I mean, if you gotta pay for things you’ve done wrong, I got a big bill coming,” Gil Scott-Heron intones on “Being Blessed,” one of several interludes on his first studio album in 16 years, I’m New Here. The line is telling and evocative of the album as a whole; Scott-Heron, the “godfather of rap,” may have built his reputation on fiery political poetics, but there’s no righteous indignation like “Whitie on the Moon” or “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” here. Instead, Scott-Heron is understated and reflective, dwelling on his childhood, his sins, and his quiet triumphs. It’s the sound of a proud man swallowing his pride while preserving his dignity, of a wise man sharing instead of lecturing, doing so with bleak humor, pathos, and dark charm.
Sonically speaking, I’m New Here bears little resemblance to Heron’s repertoire, placing him squarely in line with the XL roster. Producer Richard Russell provides chilly dubstep trappings and minimalist, skittering electronics. The jazz and soul motifs of his past aren’t gone, but less overt, stripped to their most naked distillations. Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil” is an apt example. The traditional blues elements are turned on their side, with throbbing synth-bass providing an ample bedrock for his tortured, broken wails. Whether the devil here is a metaphor for his substance issues (he was imprisoned for cocaine possession in 2001) or not, he sings with a catholic dread, morphing the devil from a religious boogie-man to a universal, creeping evil. Scott-Heron has never been known for his singing voice, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone else singing with the conviction displayed here, a voice scarred, ragged and slurred.
I’m New Here is a slight album. At just just under half an hour, Scott-Heron doesn’t waste a second. In addition to the Johnson song, he covers Brook Benton’s “I’ll Take Care of You,” the tenderest, most classically ‘soul’-sounding song on the record. He uses the track to admit to mistakes, owning up to past sins and pledging, “Just as sure as one and one is two/ I know I’ll take care of you.” His reading of Smog’s “I’m New Here” is similarly mindful of traditional song form; over a dutifully finger-picked acoustic, he removes songwriter Bill Callahan’s lilt but not his weary optimism, singing in cracked cadence: “No matter how wrong you’ve gone/ You can always turn around.”
Original “New York Is Killing Me” offers the record’s most gripping moment, a distorted mess of fuzzed bass, school girl clap-games, gospel calls, and funky guitar. It’s sinister sounding, like the best sermons, replete with burial instructions and cries for the Lord’s mercy. Scott-Heron doesn’t sound like he’s playing the preacher, either, but rather the sulking, hiding parishioner in the back. “Running” conveys a similar sense of dread, with Gil twisting his words playfully while imparting a grim message, that his running has become compulsory; he runs because all he knows is to run. On “I Was Guided,” he takes stock of what has lead him to his current state. “I was guided/ To get here,” he mumbles, accepting all of the good and bad of the statement.
I’m New Here is undoubtedly a bleak record, and given Scott-Heron’s trials, it’s hard to imagine it being anything else. But his take recognizes a hard-earned beauty, as well. The album begins and ends with “On Coming From a Broken Home” pt. 1 & 2, where he twists and molds the concept of a “broken home” into something fierce and lovely over a Kanye West sample. Canonizing the grandmother who raised him, he declares that despite his lack of a “positive male figure,” she reared him with love and devotion as “absolutely not the typical mail order-room service-type cast black grandmother.” While society would quickly point out his “broken home,” Scott-Heron argues that it was the home that he was given, and that in that “broken home” he learned about the passionate humanity that ultimately has come to define his work, providing a breeding ground for all the contradictions, vigor, stubbornness, and unyielding, fierce beauty that his poetry is capable of.