It’s so good to hear him again.
It’s been 16 years since Gil Scott-Heron’s last studio record, and 28 years since the one before that. The man who paved the way for hip-hop with his trenchant jazz-and-soul-infused political poetry fell by the wayside in almost perfect dovetail with the ascendance of that genre, repeating the same songs in live shows for much of the late ’80s.
The man who had famously proclaimed that “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” who fought apartheid in the songs “Johannesburg” and “Let Me See Your I.D.,” who sang about the dangers of nuclear power in “We Almost Lost Detroit,” and delivered a blistered critique of Reaganism in the classic “B-Movie,” steadily began losing his compassionate zeal and observational prowess.
The drug arrests for cocaine in the early aughts identified the demons that were so obviously shredding his soulfulness. On the song “New York Is Killing Me” from his new record, “I’m New Here,” Scott-Heron also implicates alcohol in his creative demise.
In some ways “I’m New Here” is rife with the narrative clichés of psychic healing — it’s about confession, atonement, and the can’t-yet-be-spoken, hoped-for redemption. But I repeat, it is so good to hear that familiar honeyed burr of his talk-song, with its southern drawl (Scott-Heron was born in Chicago but raised by his granny in Jackson, Tenn.) and thick, unmistakably African-American tone and cadence.
This is not a vintage Scott-Heron record, but raw folk blues shorn of ornamentation, 10 songs and five interludes wrapped up in a mere 28 minutes. The closest we get to his classic vocabulary jousts is on “Running,” a broken-field dissection of various definitions and contexts for the word, anchored by “running for cover” and his subsequent, searing remark: “If I knew where cover was/I would stay there/And never have to run for it.”
The disc is bracketed by his tribute to his grandmother, “On Coming From a Broken Home.” And although Scott-Heron’s vocals occasional slide into anguish, as on the lead single, “Me and the Devil,” there is hope here that sounds wary but determined. “No matter how wrong you’ve gone/You can always turn around,” he repeats in a fragile voice that makes him sound like an octogenarian from the Delta on the title song.
I want both sides in flesh at the Dakota on Sunday: The hip-hop prophet lambasting social injustice and the penitent addict confessing the blues. I want him to ask, “What’s the word?/Tell me brother have you heard?/From Johannesburg.” I want that thankful shout-out to his grandmother and older, now ironic anti-drug anthems such as “The Bottle” and “Angel Dust.”
Here is a vintage rendition of “The Bottle,” with Brian Jackson on flute.
Here is his “B-Movie,” which has the great coda where he chants “This ain’t really your life/Ain’t nothin’ but a movie” over an increasingly intense soul-jazz beat.
And here is a live track from 2008 of one of his most joyous songs, “Lady Day and John Coltrane.”
Welcome back Gil. Don’t be afraid to show us what you’ve got. And happy 61st birthday on April 1.
Gil Scott-Heron at the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant, Sunday, March 28, at 7 and 9:30 p.m.; tickets are $45 at 7 and $35 at 9:30.