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Album Review
I'm New Here

I'm New Here
by Gil Scott-Heron


Review Date
7th April 2010
Reviewed by
Brannavan Gnanalingam

Gil Scott-Heron is considered one of the pioneers of hip-hop, with his poetry of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and later explorations of funk and hip-hop having lasting influence for his lyrical dexterity and political self-expression. His most famous song ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ became his signature tune and a sloganeering cliché, and has been referenced by artists as diverse as Public Enemy, Pulp and Steve Earle. I’m New Here is Scott-Heron’s first studio album for sixteen years, and is almost a starting over for a man who has been plagued in recent years by cocaine addiction, jail-time, and HIV rumours. But if the colour scheme of the front cover is anything to go by too – a sly dig at the pink and green of Elvis Presley’s culturally controversial debut album (e.g. like Elvis, this album is announcing ‘I’m new here’) – Scott-Heron hasn’t lost his sense of bite.

However, the album is much less politically driven than his most famous work. The album is book-ended by spoken word poetry which pays tribute to Scott-Heron’s matriarchal influences. From there, the music veers towards blues and trip-hop (despite the two seeming incongruous), and the production is incredibly sparse throughout. His noir-ish Robert Johnson cover ‘Me and the Devil’ sounds like it could have walked off The Wire soundtrack, and features overdubs by Damon Albarn. Bill Callahan’s ‘I’m New Here’ becomes the title track of the album, and Scott-Heron’s baritone voice sings like a guilty conscience over a picked guitar. A pizzicato’d cover of ‘50s R&B singer Brook Benton’s ‘I’ll Take Care of You’ offers a rare tender moment from the overall claustrophobia of the album. But it’s back to darkness with the album’s highpoint – ‘New York is Killing Me’, with its hauntingly spare production (Timbaland would have proud of this kind of production once upon a time) and unbelievably catchy rhythm, a song in which Scott-Heron rails against the city with whose memory he is synonymous.

The album’s biggest weakness is that it’s far too short – twenty-eight minutes complete with interludes is hard to recommend to anyone to buy, or to give a coherent shape to the album (despite there being fifteen tracks). Part of the reason the length is frustrating is that the music on this album is uniformly great. For a brief glimpse, I’m New Here shows that the old master can reinvent himself and seem ‘new’, despite the undertow of decades of influence, and decades of having written music.

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