A Surprising Record From Gil Scott Heron

Gil Scott Heron is a poet and singer/songwriter known for his politically charged work in the 1970s. Many consider him a forefather of modern rap for the way he merged inner-city poetry and jazzy soul music. He's been out of the spotlight in recent years, but has just released a surprising new record.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Gil Scott-Heron is a poet and singer-songwriter best known for his politically charged work in the 1970s, songs like "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised."

(Soundbite of song, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised")

Mr.�GIL SCOTT-HERON (Singer): (Singing) You will not be able to stay home, brother. You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out. You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip out for beer during commercials because the revolution will not be televised.

BLOCK: Many people consider him a forefather of modern rap. After years out of the spotlight, Gil Scott-Heron is back with a new record. Will Hermes has our review.

WILL HERMES: When I discovered Gil Scott-Heron, I discovered a musical hero, a man who spoke baritone truth to power over jazzy funk at a time when funky music was primarily about shake, shake, shaking your booty.

Whether the issue was black political power or nuclear power, Scott-Heron didn't mince words. His comeback record, "I'm New Here," doesn't mince words either, but instead of political battles, these songs suggest he's fighting personal ones.

(Soundbite of song, "Me and the Devil")

Mr.�SCOTT-HERON: (Singing) Early this morning, when you knocked upon my door and I said, hello, Satan. I believe it is time to go. Me and the devil walking side by side.

HERMES: Comeback records always worry me, especially when they're made by one of my heroes, and I'd heard stories about Gil Scott-Heron recently, about drug arrests and prison terms and other troubles. I wasn't prepared for the ravaged shakiness of his voice on this record or the raw spoken word pieces or the dark electronic backgrounds.

(Soundbite of song, "Where Did the Night Go?")

Mr.�SCOTT-HERON: Long ago, the clock washed midnight away, bringing the dawn. Oh, God, I must be dreaming. Time to get up again and time to start up again, putting on my socks now. Where did the night go? Should have been asleep when I was sitting there drinking beer and trying to start another letter to you. Don't know how many times I didn't write again last night.

HERMES: But I was haunted by this record, which is produced by Richard Russell of England's XL Records, home of Radiohead and the White Stripes. I kept listening to it, and soon instead of just a fallen hero, I saw a man, flawed but heroic too, staring down his demons. At its core, for all its 21st-century arrangements, this is an old-fashioned blues record.

(Soundbite of song, "New York is Killing Me")

Mr.�SCOTT-HERON: (Singing) (Unintelligible) New York is killing me. (Unintelligible) move back home in Jackson, Tennessee. Lord, have mercy, mercy on me. Lord, have mercy...

HERMES: The upshot here is that Gil Scott-Heron is still a warrior, even if the front lines have moved. He's made a record not without hope but which doesn't come with any easy or comforting answers. In that way, the man is clearly still committed to speaking the truth.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm New Here")

Mr.�SCOTT-HERON: (Singing) No matter how far wrong you've gone...

BLOCK: The new album from Gil Scott-Heron is called "I'm New Here." Our reviewer is Will Hermes. You can hear an interview with Scott-Heron on our Web site, that's npr.org. He recently spoke with our colleague Guy Raz on WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr.�SCOTT-HERON: Met a woman in a bar, told her I was hard to get to know and near impossible to forget. She said I had an ego on me...

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

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