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A first listen to Gil Scott-Heron's 'I'm New Here'

December 11, 2009 | 10:40 am

Gil300 Spoken-word proto-rap artist Gil Scott-Heron's new album, "I'm New Here," opens and closes with an unexpected sample: Kanye West's "Flashing Lights." The juxtaposition of one of America's most notorious polemecists speaking over such an unabashedly commercial pop track is amusing at first, but as Heron and his voice-of-God baritone gets deeper into  tales of broken homes and how the guidance of women makes men who they are, it becomes a bit more striking. The takeaway is this -- we're still dealing with many of the same things Heron lamented back in the heyday of American urban decay.

But the gravity of Scott-Heron's presence isn't enough necessarily to pleasurably sustain a whole LP on its own today, especially in light of rap's recent wholesale transformation into another strain of disco. The striking element of "New," Heron's first record in a decade and half, is the very savvy production helmed by XL Records founder Richard Russell. The music is an odd melange of buzzing, dubsteppy bass, ramshackle drum loops and a sort of world-weary bluesiness that by and large does Scott-Heron's ruminations on love, loss and identity justice. But it's a brooding thing to take in one sitting -- at a listening session Wednesday at Silver Lake's El Tres Inn, instructions from Scott-Heron politely insisted on such -- and the moments of levity were welcome.

"A.M.," for instance, is about the bleakest-sounding thing in Scott-Heron's catalog, a lead weight of subbass and hypnotic percussion, but lyrically it's a walk through his domestic routine -- the combination makes cracking a beer seem fraught with doom. Johnny Cash's end-of-life work with Rick Rubin is an apt vibe comparison, but the contemporary sonics mean there's no sense of creeping mortality in Scott-Heron's work. "Your Soul and Mine" could have come out on Hyperdub, and to hear it up against his folkier work (like his Robert Johnson cover "Me And The Devil") and the occasional gospel-singed number is to draw a very long line through the music of isolation -- it's no coincidence that West has sampled Scott-Heron before as well.

It's hard to identify what space "New" will occupy in the contemporary music landscape. It's not emphatically beat-driven enough to sit too well with the surging bass-music culture coming from the UK, and it's too fractured to fit with Scott-Heron's more jazz- and funk-centric work from the '70s. Pop music seems to have all but abdicated any pretense to taking politics seriously on record, and Scott-Heron is still a true voice in the wilderness making those ideas feel personal. But it's been a long 15 years in music since Scott-Heron's last album. Rap lost its lyrical urgency, the American left became the provenance of knee-jerk bloggers and the revolution wasn't televised because it didn't happen.

So after one pass through, "New" feels like it might be most enjoyable in a counter-intuitive way: as a noise record of sorts. It's an unexpectedly sensuous hour of transportive sonics, from which Scott-Heron's voice and redemptive vision is sort of a light -- "Flashing" or not -- through a very dark tunnel. 

-- August Brown

Photo credit: Marilynn Young / Los Angeles Times