I'm New Here
Not too long ago, the leading French philosopher of the previous decade, Alain Badiou, opened a lecture with these words: "After the war, the peace." Gil Scott-Heron's first album in over a decade is, indeed, the peace after a long war. The peace is not easy, nor is it the product of a truce or a surrender. The forces that Scott-Heron challenged during the peak of his career, the early '70s, are not victorious. Scott-Heron is still a revolutionary, still opposed to all kinds of oppression, still not loving the police. The peace has less to do with his old enemies and more to do with the status of his existence, which is now facing death. I'm New Here is about reaching a peace with the hardest fact of life: that it comes to an end.
Badiou also described the position of the subject, the person as one between the world and a trace. I'm New Here, a record that draws on all of the cultural resources of black America (the spiritual, jazz, black English, blues, hiphop, rap), is a deliberate trace that Scott-Heron (the subject) has left for a world that will be without him one day.
It opens with Scott-Heron recalling his childhood against the looped sample of the orchestral synths from Kanye West's "Flashing Lights." The most superficial pop forms the background for a narrative that is drawn from the depths of time, from the 1950s—the time Scott-Heron lived with his grandmother, Lillie Scott, in Jackson, Tennessee. This opening is followed by the album's most fascinating track, "Me and the Devil," a slamming hiphop and blues fusion that is haunted by the cracked voice of an old man.
In "New York Is Killing Me," Scott-Heron longs for the simpler and warm times of his childhood in Jackson, Tennessee, his first world, to a bouncy urban beat and childlike clapping. On this track, he moans and groans like a man who is 90 and not like a man who is just 60, which is Scott-Heron's age. And in "Running," he reads a very direct poem that defends the decisions he made in the past, the decisions that define his politics and life (he has been through a very rough decade, including some time spent in prison). The conclusion of the poem? He has no regrets. The poem also references that letter of recommendation the protagonist in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man carries in his bag—"Keep This Nigger-Boy Running." Scott-Heron was, after all, a novelist before he became a revolutionary poet.
Scott-Heron does not hide his age but makes it the very center of every tune and poem on the album. Age has changed his voice but not his intelligence and his commitment to progressive ideas.