The New York Knicks are, without question, one of the worst basketball teams in the NBA right now, and they've been that way for a while. Barring some sort of savior from Akron, Ohio, it seems as though New Yorkers—some of whom believe that their city, their home is broken because of a crippled version of a once-prized sports franchise—will continue to suffer.
All of this probably doesn't have much to do with "New York Is Killing Me," the self-diagnostic, pitter-pattering blast from I'm New Here, the remarkable just-out LP by Gil Scott-Heron. On a Thursday evening, however, he is, indeed, in his New York office, watching the Knicks drop another one to the Toronto Raptors. His frayed-and-broken New York state of mind might not seem that far removed from his childhood, when he was raised in what many would call a "broken home," but he was, and remains, resilient.
"I never ever applied the term 'broken home' to me, and I decided to show why," says Scott-Heron, now 60, referring to "On Coming From a Broken Home," a two-part ode to his upbringing in Tennessee that incorporates a sample from Kanye West's "Flashing Lights." West sampled Scott-Heron in 2005. "I had been loved, I had been educated, and I had been taught how to be a man. And I thought that I needed to show that."
Scott-Heron is the gruff-voiced griot and spoken-word poet who laid a good chunk of the foundation for what we know today as rapping—in short, one of America's most important voices. I'm New Here is his unremitting self-portrait of a man who's had years to catalogue and now capture his paranoia, thrills and agitations. I'm New Here doesn't act as a confessional or clarification for rumors and speculation regarding his personal tribulations (drug-related legal troubles and rumors of serious health issues) over the past decade. For Scott-Heron, there's no reason to speak on these things.
"What do you want me to say?" he snorts, rhetorically. "I've been divorced, and I never made a song about that either."
I'm New Here doesn't present the sort of political jibing that we've been accustomed to from Scott-Heron over the past 30 years. Rather, it's an album of poems and covers that transform Scott-Heron from a polemical author to a man obsessed by his own peculiarities, which he wrestles with on the Robert Johnson song "Me and the Devil." Embellished by what may be the loudest baritone bellows Scott-Heron has put to tape since 1980's "Shut 'um Down" and emboldened by the harsh, crashing production of XL Records founder Richard Russell, it's a menacing track, akin to something by experimental hip-hop artists El-P and Dabrye.
"Anytime you sing a new [cover] song, you're taking on the character of a new person. You're taking on their personality. You're trying to take on that person's attitude. If you've heard Robert Johnson sing it, then you know that he was selling wolf tickets," says Scott-Heron, following it with a cough-beset chuckle. "You also have to approach the way you do a cover by the way the song was arranged, the way it was written. Robert Johnson was working with a six-string guitar. We decided to work with six fingers on a piano. So it was a little bit different, but not much so because Nat King Cole was a piano player, Nina Simone was a piano player, Roberta Flack was a piano player."
In spite of the newness the record's title suggests, neither Scott-Heron nor his narratives are new here. But the characters and portrayals he found in the aftermath of his battles at home in New York might be. Like Robert Johnson, Scott-Heron might have once made a deal with some representation of evil, but at least for now, and for everyone's sake, Scott-Heron sounds like he's reneged. The deal's off, and the pieces of the weathered New Yorker remain assembled.
Gil Scott-Heron performs at Carolina Theatre Friday, Feb. 5, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $22-$30.