There is no societal narrative for when a talented artist continues making music while living the life of a long-term drug addict. There are surely well-known artists living addicted lives below the radar even as we speak, but the models set before us are either those whose addiction left them fallen by the way or those triumphant in kicking the habit and reinvigorating their careers.
We do not know what to do with an addict who is neither spiraling down nor climbing out of it, but living stagnant in the mire. We pity them. We see them as ravaged and defeated, as if somehow they lost in life, but we always expect them to either slide down to fatality or rise up from the ashes. In his newest work, I'm New Here, Gil-Scott Heron gives a contextual identity to this ignored character.
The poetry of Scott-Heron’s music has always dealt with a "ghetto pathos," which he embodies both emotionally and politically. Much of his music in the 70's gave gravity to the pervasiveness of addiction and poverty he saw around him. In his new work, this gravity seems to have morphed into a mischievous yet haunted voice of fate and redemption. He has hit bottom and is letting us peek down the rabbit hole.
A little background for perspective: In the 60's Scott-Heron lived with his mother in Hell’s Kitchen, then a belly of crime and poverty. He was awarded a full scholarship to attend a progressive NYC prep school and later attended Lincoln University—the alma mater of Langston Hughes—where he met a group called The Last Poets. They made such an impression on him that he asked them if he could form a group similar to theirs.
He made a name for himself in 1969 with his brilliantly satirical “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a song that crystallized the irrelevance of mainstream white culture in all of its ridiculousness. A flurry of albums followed that largely showcased black radical politics, a proto-rap cadence and beats that would become some of the most sampled in the history of hip-hop. This has led some to label Scott-Heron the Godfather of Rap, a moniker he believes is incorrect.
Arista Records dropped Scott-Heron in 1985 and a series of personal and financial troubles since then have kept him on hard times. His touring and recordings have been sporadic for the last twenty-five years as crack cocaine addiction and stints of incarceration have taken up much of his time. Recently found destitute in the slums of Harlem, he has been reclaimed and given voice once more by the British music mogul Richard Russell. His first album in sixteen years, I’m New Here, was released in February.
Ironically Scott-Heron is now languishing in the lifestyle he detested the most, and depending on your perspective that may give more or less gravity to the music of both his past and present. Throughout, though, Heron has been a poet and a torch singer of sorts, able to tap into a collective resonance even with the simplest of sentiments. In his new work he points those skills toward the dichotomy of hubris and self-pity that comes with addiction.
The song "I'm New Here" echoes his original spoken word style and is redemptive and hopeful. He is "new" in the sense perhaps that he is back in the world again after so many years of isolation. It's like he's a patient waking from a coma. He sings, "no matter how far you've gone / you can always turn around." In the music video he's smiling, looking dead ahead at the camera as if he is challenging people to define him, or to tell him that he is lost, ravaged or finished.
In direct contrast to the hopefulness of "I'm New Here," "Your Soul and Mine" is a dream-like descent into Hell. The gravity of his imagery is much heavier now after years at the bottom and there is an aged, dusty quality to his voice that is in stark contrast to the vigorous, nuanced croon of his old work. The best songs on the album are the ones where Scott-Heron has minimal accompaniment. "I'm New Here" is simple, employing a catchy acoustic guitar behind his words. On "New York is Killing Me" he sings above playground clapping and groans, "Buncha doctor's come ‘round, they don't know that New York is killing me / I need to go home and take it slow down in Jackson, Tennessee."
That said, it is disappointing that the sound around his voice on most songs is overly precious and already dated. Almost every hip-hop production trope is employed short of Auto-Tune. It is clear that the perpetrators of this background fluff are great admirers, but perhaps that is the problem. When one works with an artist from a position of worship rather than fellowship the results are bound to reflect the imbalance.
The videos to "I'm New Here" and "Me and The Devil" are also ham-fisted. They seem like a parody of what Scott-Heron is trying to communicate. In "I'm New Here" his facial expressions are fascinating, but the overcalculated way they treat him as a subject is off-putting. It is supposed to be a document of Gil in the studio, but instead comes off like an Eric Clapton video circa 1992. Even worse, the "Me and The Devil" video is hipsterifically "New York", as if they needed to stylize his reality to make it more “real”. To me both come off as fundamental misunderstandings of the artist's message and environment.
If you can ignore these piddling annoyances and focus on Scott-Heron you can cherish the brief moments of his brilliant warmth that this album captures. It’s clearly against the odds, but hopefully this first treatise in nearly two decades will be followed up by something more sustained and better supported.