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Monday, March 22, 2010

Gil Scott-Heron

I’m New Here (XL Recordings)

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Chicago-born, Tennessee-raised, New York-schooled Gil Scott-Heron has made a career out of a decades-long fusion between poetry, literature, spoken-word jazz, old soul, slick R&B and a kind of precursory hip-hop. Simply, the man is an amalgam of arts, places and times—much like his latest, I’m New Here.

The long-awaited album offers mostly spoken-word pieces backed by a patchwork of lo-fi, dancehall-ish blues. The blips, synths and echoing booms indicate that someone in the studio knew their way around Pro Tools, and as an underlying theme the soundscape works: modern, moody, like the backing on the spookier sections of The Matrix. Alongside there’s also modern soul on “I’ll Take Care of You,” acoustic finger-picking blues on the simple, painful title track, and a glorious hand-clapped hip-hopper, “New York Is Killing Me.” Add a peppering of philosophical interludes (some jokey, some dark, none very consequential) and a curious update of Robert Johnson, and you have a 2010 portrait of one of the true godfathers of rap.

Consistent, not quite. But cohesive? That’s another thing. Through simple conviction, GSH conveys the from-the-hip urban complexities of a street-corner prophet, at best waxing like a modern-day LeRoi Jones, or at least Ishmael Reed. It’s the sound of a poet of the street returning to the studio, cataloging recent demons and time-earned lessons, reminding us as he once did, “the revolution will not be televised,” but offering it up in 21st-century-friendly, digital form.