Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX couldn’t be any more different, as artists and as people. Scott-Heron is an iconoclastic poet, considered by many to be the Godfather of Rap. The 61-year old is well-worn after a life plagued by drug use, jail time, and HIV. Still, the man who gave us “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and the “Message to the Messengers” looms large, even after a 16 year absence from music (and life as we know it). Jamie XX (nee Smith), on the other hand, is the unlikely breakout star from an unlikely breakout group, The XX. The MPC manipulator is emerging as an artist to watch on the electronic music landscape: a man with his whole life and career ahead of him.
Last year, Scott-Heron returned to music with I’m New Here, produced by XL Records head Richard Russell. This week sees the release of We’re New Here, a remixed and re-imagined version of that album with Jamie XX behind the boards. The two artists collaborated by way of handwritten notes, not in the studio – an illustration of the metaphorical distance between the two. While the two albums are not a one-to-one translation (some songs on We’re New Here are based on outtakes from the original), the majority lines up nicely. So, how do they compare?
|I’m New Here||The blues-folk guitar on the titular record better captures the redemptive nature of the Smog original. On his effort, Smith pitchshifts Gloria Gaynor, replacing GSH’s sweetly sung chorus.||We’re…|
|Your Soul and Mine||The grimy, pulsing tones of the original better match the darkness of the lyrics. Smith’s version reduces “wilderness of heartbreak and a desert of despair” to a ghostly sample behind a wall of UK funky.||I’m…|
|I’ll Take Care of You||The original, a jazzy, piano-driven cover of Van Morrison, is fueled by Scott-Heron, broken voice and all. It’s a song that exists at the confluence of pain, love and devotion. The new version is a deep house jam with guitar riffs right out of an XX song, which gets points for its originality.||We’re…|
|New York is Killing Me||The much-hyped version from Jamie XX utilizes surging dubstep beats and broken vocal samples as a backdrop for the pleas of the forlorn narrator. The original relied on a Neptunesque click-clack-track, crafting a modern spirtual about North-South migration.||We’re…|
|Running||Jamie’s take upgrades the original’s minimal beat with the full-on, Hudson Mohawke-like aqua crunk treatment.||We’re…|
|The Crutch||The new version is overwhelmed by glitchy beats and synths that – while fine on their own – distract from the vocals. Ironically, the additional elements act as a crutch for a song that doesn’t need one.||I’m…|
|Home / Coming from a broken home||This is bit of Apples v. Oranges, but the “Flashing Lights”-sampling songs that bookend I’m New Here are the most poignant and personal of the album. Rather than attack those, Smith revisits “Home is where the hatred is,” turf mined more successfully on Kanye’s Late Registration.||I’m…|
While We’re New Here may win on points, it’s a split decision in the end. The records are symbiotic: at this point, there could not be one without the other. The first was an ironic statement from a prodigal giant; the second a clarion call from a bright new talent. Either way, this much is certain: while one is returning from exile and the other is insurgent, these are both artists with revolution in mind.