Album Review: ‘We’re New Again’ By Makaya McCraven And Gil Scott-Heron

Many listeners have already heard late poet Gil Scott-Heron’s reflective baritone without even knowing it. For one, a lengthy sample of his spoken word piece ‘Comment No. 1’ closes out Kanye opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a track that questions the assumptions of the American Dream by reflecting on its improbability for many African Americans. A looped sample of his voice also comprises the bridge of Drake’s club banger: ‘Take Care’ (from the album of the same name), itself a track that leans heavily on a sample from Jamie xx’s We’re New Here, a remix of ‘I’ll Take Care Of You’ off of a Scott-Heron album. At a point, it becomes difficult to keep track of the remixes, samples, and references that have built Scott-Heron’s understated influence in contemporary hiphop and R&B, but his final album, I’m New Here, is a good place to start.

Released in 2010, just over a year before his death, I’m New Here was Scott-Heron’s first release since 1994’s Spirits. Produced and creatively helmed by XL Recordings founder Richard Russell, the album began development at the tail-end of a three year period that Scott-Heron had spent incarcerated for cocaine possession. It’s sound was a stark departure from the jazz and funk instrumentation that had supported much of his music through the ‘70s and ‘80s, with Russell instead opting for an electro-minimalist sound that kept the artist’s voice and lyricism at the forefront, only occasionally supplemented by rumbling bass and flickeringly-dissonant synth tones. Upon release it drew favourable comparisons to the Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash partnership that had birthed American Recordings, itself a career-revival marked by a dramatic change in sound and tone. The aforementioned Jamie xx tribute We’re New Here was quick to follow, putting a trancey post-dubstep spin on the original sombre recordings.

Now, I’m New Here has been dredged up yet again, this time with the title We’re New Again, and with the added treatment of Chicago drummer and bandleader Makaya McCraven’s contemporary jazz stylings. Thanks to a deep sense of candour in his vocal delivery, Scott-Heron makes even the most seemingly-meaningless lyrical aside sound profound. McCraven clearly knows this, and works his frenetic brand of hiphop-tinged jazz into the pauses between meaningful lines. ‘Where Did The Night Go’, a stream-of-conscious rave on insomnia and regret is given a conversation partner in a repetitive flute lick that noodles in and out of Scott-Heron’s dour reflections: “Should have been asleep / When I was sitting there drinking beer / And trying to start another letter to you”. Unlike the music from earlier in Scott-Heron’s career, the rhythm and tone in this project is one of distinct pessimism. Tracks like ‘Running’ show this with compelling and complex drum beats that feel more at home in the realm of the avant-garde than in the Motown-esque sound of albums like Pieces of a Man. In some ways, McCraven’s approach of reinvention is done to a fault. Where the original album was a mere twenty-eight minutes of fifteen electric tracks, he stretches his iteration out by another nine minutes and three tracks, many of them – besides vital album-opener ‘Special Tribute – (Broken Home pt. 1) – throwaway interludes of spliced and repeated lines from other pieces.

However, in compositions such as ‘I’m New Here’, McCraven strikes gold. Scott-Heron’s simple and forward statement of “I did not become someone different / that I did not want to be / but I’m new here / will you show me around?” is paired with dreamy ensemble work, enhanced with a celestial harp intro and skittering ride cymbal pattern. It proves uplifting, supporting the lyrics above it and then some. McCraven’s take on ‘New York is Killing Me’ also gives the original’s sparsity an exciting amount of instrumental thickness, the busy-sounding drumming being a highlight.

We’re New Again ultimately evidences McCraven’s deep passion for Scott-Heron’s work, tributing and contextualising it in the best way he knows how. While it’s shorter tracks fleetingly lack the coherence of the longer, narrative-laden ballads, it aptly justifies the decade-old recordings for a new niche of Scott-Heron fans.