It's astonishing to consider that nearly ten years after the death of poet, songwriter, novelist, and polemicist Gil Scott-Heron in 2011, much of his work is unavailable. Released in 2010, I'm New Here was Scott-Heron's first album in nearly 15 years. Actively produced by Richard Russell and released by his XL Recordings, the set sounded more like a collaboration, a heavily electronic step away from the jazz-inflected, Caribbean-tinged, funky R&B that Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson delivered in the '70s. Russell approached drummer, composer, and conceptualist Makaya McCraven to rework the album for its tenth anniversary, and he did just that: he reimagined the entire album as We're New Again.
Unlike the brittle electronica and jagged beats employed by Russell, McCraven stripped his mix down to Scott-Heron's vocals. He rebuilt the music with his trademark post-production method wherein he uses live musicians (here, harpist Brandee Younger, guitarist Jeff Parker, and bassist Junius Paul) playing in the moment for source material to create something new from the fragments of other musical ephemera. An example can be found in the opening track, as Scott-Heron reads his poem "Broken Home" (delivered in four parts). McCraven used a vintage recording of his mom playing the flute while his father plays the kalimba, and combined them with new rhythm tracks and Younger's gorgeous harp. That lineup remains with extra instrumentation on "I'm New Here," adding groove and grit but opening its frame to the outside. The modal post-bop that introduces "New York Is Killing Me," with upright bass, McCraven's funky Latin drums, piano, and layers of percussion, frames Scott-Heron's iconic, bluesy vocal in a dramatic yet sultry, hip-shaking way with lyrics so sharp they cut. "I'll Take Care of You" was created with waves of shuffling snare and hi-hat, a sparkling, cascading, electronically manipulated piano in loops, and Scott-Heron's grainy baritone to become a soul tune; likewise, the airy, intimate "This Can't Be Real." On "The Crutch," McCraven transformed the brittle, brooding polemic into a punchy, hypnotic funk jam, complete with sampled field hollers as a backing chorus, blurting synths, fuzzy bass, and distorted guitars; Scott-Heron's voice anchors it all and speaks right into the groove. The redo of the cover of Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil" owes a nod to Frank Zappa's "Peaches en Regalia" in the horn intro; while the mix is still beat-centered, McCraven layers so much into it that Scott-Heron's testifying vocal offers a tragic truth as a daily occurrence. The woozy mix, Parker's deft, sharp, and meaty guitaristry, a ticking snare, hi-hat, ambient effects, and tape manipulation emerge with what amounts to a more resonant and ultimately harrowing reading. We're New Again is aptly titled. It's the work of a master musician/producer paying wonderful tribute to Scott-Heron for sure, but it's also a fully realized McCraven album, chock-full of his instrumental, arrangement, and production prowess. If you didn't know better, you'd swear this was a collaborative date. It adds immeasurably to Scott-Heron's canon, celebrating his influence by revealing the full power, pain, and streetwise wisdom of the artist in the present and the future.