For more than two decades, younger artists have been reinterpreting the work of legendary spoken-word poet and rap forefather Gil Scott-Heron. He’s been sampled, quoted, name-dropped, and featured by Common, Blackalicious, Aesop Rock, and Public Enemy. One of his most famous poems from the ’60s took up a startling amount of real estate on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy last year, even as Scott-Heron returned with a stunner of a new album, his first since 1994, I’m New Here. The man’s relevance is established (gilded, even), so is a remixed version of his latest necessary, or is We’re New Here—a reinterpretation by The XX’s in-band producer Jamie Smith—simply hype-mongering?
“I did not become someone different that I did not want to be,” Scott-Heron rasps at the album’s start. “But I’m new here. Will you show me around?” Smith responds with a gush of crystallized synthesizers followed by a rainy-day, bass-dipped beat so utterly hypnotic that all questions are laid to rest. No, this isn’t gratuitous. Yes, Smith will show us around. Sonically speaking, London has that whole bleak thing on lockdown, and without his band to worry about, Smith is free to get as chilly as he wants. Scott-Heron’s association has always been distinctly American, but his pained, bluesy musings are as universally human as they are perennially pertinent.
“Home” is essentially minimal dubstep. “Running” is built of lurching breakbeats and chopped steel drums, giving it a menacing, off-kilter swagger. “The Crutch” carves its particular hollow out of drum and bass and thick synth washes before “Ur Soul And Mine” spreads an almost danceable pestilence via warbling, wobbly house music. “My Cloud” actually sounds chillwave-y, like something that’d be on a Baths record, but with a Bill Withers-style vocal. Throughout, of course, Scott-Heron talks, sings, hums, and pontificates, sometimes over the beat and sometimes from deep within the snowdrift. The real triumph of We’re New Here is that it doesn’t feel like an album-length remix. Instead, it’s a collaboration done the way Scott-Heron’s best team-ups always are: after the fact, with time to consider the everlasting gravity of the man’s words and wisdom.