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Gil Scott-Heron comes full circle with Makaya McCraven’s ‘We’re New Again’

gil scott-heron, makaya mccraven, i'm new here, we're new again

Gil Scott-Heron released I’m New Here in 2010. It may seem strange for an artist considered so influential – he’s often thought to be the first MC – to release an album with such a title. But in the end, that was the point. I’m New Here was a kind of coming full circle, an ending to begin again. An artistic ouroboros, if you like.

“And you may come full circle / And be new here again,” he professes in the title track. Scott-Heron died the next year.

gil scott-heron, makaya mccraven, i'm new here, we're new again

On We’re New Again, Makaya McCraven breathes new life into Gil Scott-Heron’s undying classic, demonstrating how art can become a beautiful act of circular connection.

I’m New Here was reimagined once before, by the English producer Jamie xx, the same year that Scott-Heron died.

A longtime fan, Jamie was approached by the head of Scott-Heron’s label, XL, with the idea of remixing the album. Jamie agreed and got to work, occasionally communicating with Scott-Heron through letters. We’re New Here came out in February 2011. Scott-Heron died in May.

Yet his legacy lives on, and now I’m New Here has come to life once more. This time it’s in the form of a reimagining by an American musician, Makaya McCraven. Predominantly a jazz drummer and producer, McCraven has released numerous albums under his own name, including 2018’s Universal Beings.

Reworking I’m New Here doesn’t seem like an easy job. A poly-genred record, it has long wrestled against categorisation – much like the man who created it. Yet on We’re New Again, McCraven proves he is worthy of the task.

Beginning faithfully to the original, We’re New Again opens with a reworking of the opening track, On Coming From A Broken Home (Pt. 1). Except that where Scott-Heron’s poetic prologue was once nestled amongst Kanye West sampled cinematic strings, now it sits on a bed of muted synths. It feels slightly more modern. There is something understated about McCraven’s take.

Next, he tackles the original title track, I’m New Here – a song which ultimately stands out as We’re New Again’s hero. Where Scott-Heron’s voice was once accompanied by a Leonard Cohen-esque acoustic guitar, now it is supported the full force of a band.

You really get a sense of McCraven’s rhythmic prowess as he takes a track which was once beatless and brings it to life. With a drowsy half-time beat, I’m New Here oozes groove. It’s a kind of oriental disco which only blossoms with further listens. It also gets a revisit later with the short interlude Lily Scott.

McCraven gives Running a more upfront, urgent atmosphere than the foreboding original. The pairing of old school hip hop beats with Scott-Heron’s deep voice sounds like if Gorillaz’ Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey’s Head and Beastie Boys’ Intergalactic had a love child.

Towards the end, the track takes on some jazz inclinations with the introduction of a headstrong bassline. This sentiment is continued through to Blessed Parents – where Parents (Interlude) is married with an experimental jazz backdrop.

People of The Light is also a standout. Whilst a wayward saxophone gives it a slightly jazzy edge, the song has an addictive grooving quality, oozing with polyrhythms. The original (Your Soul And Mine) is more electronic and marked with a glitchy urgency, but McCraven’s organic-leaning take opens up the landscape of Scott-Heron’s poetry.

“‘I am death,’ cried the Vulture. ‘For the people of the light'”, says Scott-Heron. And within McCraven’s many-layered backdrop, you find yourself coming face to face with the vulture.

I’ll Take Care of You is another hero. McCraven transforms the soulful original into something with an entirely different essence. McCraven’s version, woozy and undulating, is again driven by his knotty beats. It’s a late-night track, music that makes you feel as though there is beauty in what is broken. This feeling is picked up again This Can’t Be Real.

You can tell Gil Scott-Heron was a big influence on McCraven. For one, Scott Heron called himself a bluesologist; “a scientist concerned with the origin of the blues”. McCraven calls himself a beat scientist. Ultimately We’re New Again pays tribute to a legend and takes the album on another journey, full circle.

And really, that’s the beautiful thing about I’m New Here, and all its reimaginings. It’s a conversation. Scott-Heron was new here, and now with McCraven, they’re both new. It’s about connection. And isn’t that what art is all about?

 

We’re New Again is out February 7th via XL Recordings. Grab your copy here.

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February 6, 2020