Makaya McCraven reinvents Gil Scott-Heron’s sound on ‘We’re New Again’

Once a singer, songwriter and poet who stood out as a voice of protest and influence across genres spanning from jazz to hip hop, by the latter stages of his life Gil Scott-Heron was perhaps an artist whose literary genius had been overlooked. Despite a prolificacy in spoken word poetry throughout the 1970s and 80s that produced ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ a poem for which he is renowned, by the late 2000s personal problems that included severe drug addiction and a doldrum period of creativity meant appreciation for Gil Scott-Heron’s significance was waning. Almost a decade on from his death, it falls on the shoulders of Chicago based composer and drummer Makaya McCraven to reignite this previously dwindling flame. We’re New Again, a repurposing of the conversational and musical snippets from Scott-Heron’s final 2010 album, seeks to do just that.

The raw and organic musical backdrop into which McCraven incorporates Scott-Heron’s lyricism is immediately apparent. In contrast to the pulsating, techno-infused rendition from Jamie xx in 2015, this composition has a much grittier texture. Fluctuating between earthy, funky blues and beautifully layered jazz, this record firmly embroils itself with a sound inherent to Gil, thereby implicating its listener into a space intimate to him and him alone. Indeed, many of the tracks reflect the album’s heartfelt and penetrating themes of mortality, prolonged fear and addiction, but also empowerment and familial love. The persistent and industrial percussion on ‘Running’, for example, is filled with brooding tension. ‘Broken Home’, is split into four parts interwoven throughout; the bassy and moody ‘Special Tribute’, which opens the album, simultaneously ingratiates its audience in Gil’s troubles and displays his gratitude toward “a family which contradicts the concepts / heard the rules but wouldn’t accept”. This is reiterated in part three ‘Lily Scott’, where Gil pays homage to the power of a mother who “raised me like she raised four of her own.”

The album works best, however, when this organic sound gains enough coherence to allow Scott-Heron’s honest yet rough tonality to take a front seat. Easily a standout track on the album is the ardently sincere ballad ‘I’ll Take Care of You’, in which the plaintive and repeating strings combine subtly with a succession of dynamic piano chords to allow for the cutting and profoundly earnest lyrics to shine through; “If you let me / Here’s what I’ll do / I’ll take care of you”. Another aesthetic highlight is the shimmering ‘I’m New Here’, which suits the naturalistic absence of any vocal repurposing from McCraven. Gil Scott-Heron merely speaks his truths, “no matter how far wrong you’ve gone / you can always turn around”, over the gentle flourishing of a harp.

That being said, organisationally this album fails to take a coherent and rational form and struggles to build momentum. With the inclusion of a series of jazzy but haphazard interludes throughout, it gains a somewhat patchwork feel. Its standout moments, despite their brilliance, appear isolated in a seemingly erratic collage of drumbeats, upright bass and snippets of dialogue. McCraven is successful in capturing the prodigious talent of Gil Scott-Heron in its rawest, most visceral form, but at the cost of an auditory experience which is inconsistent and often lacking in substance.

Image: Adam Turner