Like the man himself, Gil Scott-Heron's new album is far from perfect. For starters, there's not much of it, little more than 28 minutes.
And factoring out the brief spoken interludes and the cover versions – most intriguingly, of Bill (Smog) Callahan's "I'm New Here" – leaves just seven brief new bits of fresh material. It doesn't seem much of a haul for his first studio album in 16 years.
Then again, Gil's had other things to occupy his time, most notably the crack-cocaine addiction that led to several jail sentences and left the great political rap pioneer a broken shell of his former self. He was in Rikers Island Prison when XL label boss Richard Russell sought him out in 2006 to discuss the possibility of his recording again, with Russell as producer providing the edgy electronic soundscapes which position Scott-Heron firmly in the modern world.
Rather than tackle big-scale political issues in the manner of classics like "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and "B-Movie", however, the focus here is on his own situation, about which he harbours few delusions. "If I hadn't been as eccentric, as obnoxious, as arrogant, as aggressive, as disrespectful, as selfish, I wouldn't be me," he observes in one of the interludes, and when he sings of "Me and the Devil walking side by side" in a cover of the Robert Johnson song, the dark, sludgy techno texture seething behind his sandpaper croak leaves little doubt about the personal abyss he has traversed. The motif continues through "Your Soul And Mine", with its reference to Charon, boatman to Hades, while the opening line of Callahan's title-track – "I did not become someone different that I did not want to be" – reflects Scott-Heron's acknowledgement of his responsibility for his problems. Set to gently hypnotic acoustic guitar, it holds out the possibility of redemption within the cyclical scheme of things.
Elsewhere, "New York Is Killing Me" employs complex hand-clapping patterns to underscore his personal experience of sick-city syndrome, while "On Coming From A Broken Home" is a tribute to the grandmother with whom the young Gil was sent to live, and by extension women in general: "Womenfolk raised me, and I was full-grown before I knew I came from a broken home". Again, there's no attempt to seek extenuation, just as the junkie subject of "The Crutch" is depicted without judgement, just sympathy for his "world of nod, a world of lonely men and no love, no God". As with the man, so with this album: it might fall short in some regards, but such is the heart and the mind involved that what little is left should be treasured accordingly.
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