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Recordings: Jesse Serwer reviews the new Gil Scott-Heron album, 'I'm New Here'

Tuesday, February 9, 2010; C03

Gil Scott-Heron

I'M NEW HERE

Gil Scott-Heron, the hip-hop progenitor known for his raw '70s agitprop, has always made music requiring undivided attention. But "I'm New Here," his first LP in 16 years, is intense even for the guy who gave us "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and "Whitey on the Moon." Sonically dark and foreboding yet flush with optimistic commentary (the album begins and ends with monologues celebrating his grandmother, over a Kanye West sample), it makes for an invigorating yet draining listening experience, lingering on the mind like a twisted film plot. Late-night listens are not recommended.

Scott-Heron has two distinct vocal styles, the spoken word of '71's "Revolution" and the jagged bluesman's croon of later '70s work like "Angel Dust," and he switches between them on "I'm New Here." The effects of drug addiction and prison time have weathered him, and it shows in devastating vocal performances like "Me and the Devil." Don't pity him, though: Scott-Heron sounds preternaturally content on the spoken-word "Running" and a series of candid interludes.

Producer and XL Recordings head Richard Russell's electronic beats deviate drastically from the conga rhythms and jazz-funk on Scott-Heron's '70s recordings. Occasionally these sound beds are plodding: "Where Did the Night Go" evokes a death march. More often, they sublimely elucidate Scott-Heron's wizened poetry. The double Dutch hand-claps and trebly digital kicks on "New York Is Killing Me" make for an odd complement to Scott-Heron's down-home blues. Yet this fusion begets the album's most accessible song.

-- Jesse Serwer

Recommended tracks: "Me and the Devil," "I'm New Here," "New York Is Killing Me"

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