This week I’ve been revisiting I’m New Here, the final record from the spoken-word poet Gil Scott-Heron. It’s been a few years since I’ve heard it, and at the time of its 2010 release I was just starting to discover his notable body of work. Debuting in the late 1960s, Scott-Heron quickly became a force to reckoned with for his incisive and striking spoken-word performances about the ills of modern society, the issues of race, and the struggles and despondency of black folks post-civil rights. The man has got some legit classic performances, like the monumental “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” the hilarious and biting “Whitey on the Moon,” or the doleful “Home is Where the Hatred Is.” Scott-Heron’s body of work, especially throughout the ’70s collaborating with musician Brian Jackson, is powerful and influential, with hip-hop especially picking up a few pointers from his socially conscious lyrics and cynical takes. Through the ’80s and ’90s Scott-Heron’s output slowed and he fell on hard times, though he continued to tour. On 1994’s Spirits, his penultimate record, Scott-Heron acknowledged his role as a godfather of rap, and called on the rappers of the day to be the new messengers, to carry on the spirit of speaking out about social issues and struggles of the people.
16 long years later, Scott-Heron returned with I’m New Here, sounding more worn and weary but still every bit the inspired poet he was back in his youth. Collaborating with producer Richard Russell, the owner of XL Records, the album’s sound is heavily electronic and discordant, with shades of industrial music and trip-hop very apparent. It almost sounds like some Nine Inch Nails-type stuff, but with Scott-Heron at the center, and here he is pensive and melancholic, with many of the tracks tackling ideas of redemption, reconciliation, mortality, and acceptance. He’s lived a hell of a life, he’s made mistakes, and on this one he’s coming to grips with all of it, and looking forward to his next chapter.
“I’ll Take Care of You” is a memorable moment from the album. On it Scott-Heron speaks to a woman who has been hurt before. He is reassuring and sincere when he says that he’ll be there for her, and they’ll work through their pain together. This listen is quiet and affecting, with heavy strings and pensive piano keys. It’s that type of listen which makes you feel like you’ve got a weight on your chest, and the rawness and vulnerability heard in his voice and his lyrics will stay with you long after the song ends. It’s a heavy listen from a fascinating record, one which is a tremendous concluding piece to a storied career and life. Rest in peace, sir.