Though fans of shoe-gaze pop stars The XX have been clamoring for a follow up to 2009’s XX, creative leader and one-man drum machine Jamie Smith has turned his efforts to collaborating with New York legend Gil Scott-Heron.
Even given Smith’s current track record of remixing odd sources (see his BCC intro as an example), it is certainly unprecedented to see Scott-Heron taking interest in the project. When the first clip from We’re New Here appeared it seemed like another one of Smith’s one-off remixes, destined for, at best, a free mixtape release. Scott-Heron’s reclusive nature in recent years, especially since his arrest in 2001, made the project seem to good to be true, but having his lyrical foundation and guiding hand has made We’re New Here feel like a completely new album, not just a re-working.
The marriage of Smith’s MPC induced madness and the amazing foundation Heron brings from I’m New Here combines to make the type of music that Heron’s records have seemingly longed for: Hip-Hop. I’m well aware that Scott-Heron has been credited as the “godfather of rap,” and there’s no doubt his lyricism and activism have helped grow the genre for over thirty years. The production and music on Scott-Heron’s prior albums have consisted mostly of Jazz influenced pieces, eclectic and natural, certainly reflecting the spontaneous roots of hip-hop, but with Smith’s Dilla-like prowess on We’re New Here, the power of Scott-Heron’s lyrics now have the hip-hop frame to match.
You only have to dig twenty seconds into the album to discover this stark contrast. Scott-Heron’s original vocal tracking plays unaltered. “But I’m new here” the wordsmith remarks. It’s the same sentiment from I’m New Here, but Scott-Heron is certainly new in Smith’s world of piercing synthesizers and massive drum kicks. The vocals quickly become chopped and the music sounds like something from James Blake’s growing catalogue. “I’m New Here” is incredibly enjoyable though, and almost breathtaking the first time you hear it. Tracks like “NY is Killing Me” and “I’ll Take Care of You” follow this same pattern. Take what the listener already knows, Scott-Heron’s lyrical soundbites and ideas, let Jamie’s bag of tricks run free and end up with a post-dubstep hip-hop hybrid.
Whether you prefer Scott-Heron’s gritter and more unrefined sound, this collaboration feels like the ultimate compendium of New York’s music scene. Gone are the old voices of the city, the tales of the Wu-Tang and the sense that there is real struggle or strife. Instead it’s a heterogeneous mix of international talent devoted less to teaching lessons or passing down wisdom as it is to making twenty-somethings dance.