Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie XX – ‘We’re New Here’ (Album Review)

Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX – We’re New Here

XL Recordings

Recent collaborations between experienced artist and contemporary producer have yielded questionable results to say the least. The title of Wanda Jackon’s Jack White-produced comeback, ‘The Party Ain’t Over’, evoked images of the belligerent aunt at a wedding after one-too-many being dragged from the dance floor, and the album fell flat. Bobby Womack’s contributions to the last two Gorillaz albums are the sounds of a soul crooner unable to adapt to a new style that demands a different approach. So it was no surprise that the bold yet evidently natural pairing of producer du jour Jamie XX (née Smith), cultivator of the Mercury Music Prize winning sound of his group’s debut last year, and Gil Scott-Heron, enigmatic jazz/soul poet with a long history of astute social commentary through prototype rap, was something of an eyebrow-raiser upon its announcement a few months ago.

Scott-Heron’s customary “return to form” moment, last year’s I’m New Here, opened up another generation of fans to the world-weary poet, even going as far as to earn him a ludicrous nomination for ‘Best International Newcomer’ at this year’s Brit Awards. However, Smith’s commission to remix the release in its entirety has resulted in the diverse and highly-enjoyable We’re New Here, a superbly accomplished example of how to approach collaboration between old and new.

Scott-Heron could almost be referring to his partnership with the young beatsmith on the album’s opening line: “I did not become someone different that I did not want to be/but I’m new here. Will you show me around?” Smith does just that, easing both Scott-Heron and the listener in with a slow and oddly euphoric take on the original album’s title track. ‘Home’ features Scott-Heron’s vocals from ‘Home is where the Hatred is’: a track not from last year’s source material, but from his 1971 debut ‘Pieces of a Man’. Smith gives it a suitably spaced-out, troubled overhaul, its keening blues reconceptualised by a cavernous, off-kilter production. It’s telling that this track replaces the ominous single ‘Me and the Devil’ from the original tracklisting, possibly a conscious decision by the pair to tone down the ferocious impact of that particular cut.

‘My Cloud’ is a real delight: a disjointed and slow beat-ballad, hyper-compressed to ensure maximum head-nodding results, with an almost apologetic Scott-Heron repeatedly explaining that “everything got so turned around” over the song’s more urgent bridge. Some of the amusing album interludes of the original remain; extra snatches of beat underneath them to maintain a rhythmic consistency.

‘The Crutch’ is all frantic breakbeats and distant wailing, a heartfelt tribute to a production style of yesteryear, before a floor-shaking bassline drops to announce some of Scott-Heron’s more doom-laden couplets: “from dawn ‘til dawn his body houses hurt/and none of us can truly aid his search…the savage beast that once so soothed his brain/has reared its ugly head and staked its claim”. A highlight of I’m New Here, ‘New York is Killing me’ gets the full-on bounce of a dubstep reworking for We’re New Here, intensifying the paranoia and desperation beyond even that of the original, no easy task.

Smith’s careful and respectful treatment of his source material – while arguably upon it – is invigorating to witness, and the result is much more than just a remix album: We’re New Here deserves to stand in its own right within the cannons of both artists involved.

‘We’re New Here’ is released on monday (21st). Hear a full album stream over at The Guardian HERE

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