IT'S ABOUT TIME we got a "Best of Gil Scott-Heron." Over the last decade, this Washington-based singer and songwriter has produced consistently provocative music examining and often illuminating a wide range of social and political issues. He's done it with wit and grit, using both approaches to zoom in on life-affecting matters as overwhelming as nuclear accidents ("Shut 'Em Down") and as chillingly personal as drug and alcohol abuse ("The Bottle" and "Angel Dust.")

Scott-Heron, whose roots as a jazz poet continue to inform his music, was one of the first artists to make the connection between black oppression and struggle in Africa and America -- on 1975's "Johannesburg" -- and to draw bleak and bitter portraits of social "progress" in America's minority communities -- on "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and "Winter in America." And though one can readily laugh at the nostalgic cowboy-as-Superman imagery of " 'B' Movie" and its most recent follow-up, "Re-Ron," there's too much chilling reality to these songs to dismiss them as mere entertainment.

Politically astute, Scott-Heron wraps his messages in intriguing melodies or, in the case of his raps, inviting rhythms. The liner notes describe him as "a teller of uncomfortable truths," which is only part of the story. He's a realist, but in continuing to make his fine music, Gil Scott-Heron also shows that he's a humanist, and, just maybe, something of an optimist. GIL SCOTT-HERON -- "The Best of Gil Scott-Heron" (Arista AL8-8248); appearing Friday at American U.