Often cited as the godfather of rap, Gil Scott-Heron is one of those artists who’s more referenced than listened to, a barely commercial poet who created difficult music, uncompromising political numbers that hedged the border between song and spoken word. Mostly silent for the last 25 years, spending a portion of the last decade in jail, I’m New Here is his comeback. That it’s not a facile cash-in effort, padded with guest stars and easy melodies, speaks for the gritty insistence of the man, who once served as the nagging pebble in soul’s conscious but cocky stride.
Kanye West lifted the entire chorus from Heron’s “Home Is Where the Hate is” for “On My Way Home” from 2005’s Late Registration. Heron seemingly responds on the opening track here, speaking over “Little Child Running Wild,” the same Curtis Mayfield sample West used on “Flashing Lights.” Heron’s treatment of hip-hop is one of ornery, begrudging fatherhood, his voice still stridently political even as he enters his 60s. It’s fascinating to see this kind of resistance to going soft, and though he has done guest work for rappers in the past (most notably for the Roots’s Blackalicious), none appear here.
This is one of the things that makes I’m New Here such a masterfully stark album. The music is darker, more mechanical than the jazz-inflected backing he used in the ‘70s, he exhibits few of the tendencies of the genres he helped influence. Forceful, workable, but often sluggish, his beats are not the center of attention. He only sometimes sings, but he doesn’t rap either, delivering his words in a measured tone that recalls none of the exaggerated, hysterical bombast of slam poetry, another form which bears his fingerprints.
A kind of post-structural, indefinably plotted work, I’m New Here is marked by non-adherence to traditional song structures and a short, 28-minute running time. But it never feels slight. Its songs are jagged and often awkwardly sketched out, disparate in length and style, but the challenge they pose feels right. In many ways, the album is a formless blob. But Heron’s backhanded embrace of hip-hop structures, utilizing repetition and samples to create a mostly unrecognizable tableau, is exhilarating. The handclap beat on “New York Is Killing Me,” accompanied by a half-singing Heron and the occasional loose sound effect, grows suddenly into a gospel-backed explosion. The haunting “Running” is another highlight, borrowing a Burial-style dubstep beat for an almost eerie tone poem.
As a whole, the album serves as a fascinating bridge between modern-day rap and ‘70s-era soul, a period that, despite not occurring very long ago, seems entirely in the past. Of all those great artists, Heron, who was less a genre stalwart than a clearly defined outsider, is one of the last remaining. The sonic palette those singers provided hip-hop is also receding, yielding rappers who grew up not on Bill Withers and James Brown, but diced samples of those artists. It’s a strange place to find an album like I’m New Here, but as the title suggests, Heron appears as a stranger in a strange land, a ghost of genres past whose voice remains firmly relevant.