Born in Chicago but raised in Tennessee, Gil Scott-Heron is rightly hailed as one of the architects of hip-hop: His mergers of smart, political, streetwise poetry with jazz and R&B through the '70s predicted the sound that would explode in the '80s and become one of the dominant forces in popular culture to this day. "The revolution will not be televised," he famously warned. He turned out to be wrong about that, though it's certainly true that neither he nor the exact uprising he envisaged ever got the time they deserved on MTV.
Jailed several times over the last decade for drug possession and parole violations, Scott-Heron hadn't released a new recording in 16 years. Harboring dreams of what some have described as a Rick Rubin/Johnny Cash-like partnership and late-career revival, XL label head Richard Russell approached Heron while the artist was serving a three-year sentence on Rikers Island. Now we have the result of their collaboration, which was further enhanced by the star power and instrumental contributions of Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz).
Unfortunately, rather than the sympathetic ear for Cash's strengths that Rubin brought to that pairing, Russell fumbles with musical backings that are alien and unsuccessful, from the awkward mixture of Massive Attack and Robert Johnson on "Me and the Devil" to the misguided cover of the title track by indie rockers Smog. But rest of the blame belongs solely to the 60-year-old vocalist and lyricist.
The clarion call of that once potent voice is now a lazy slur, and rather than turning his formerly piercing gaze on recent events that seem like new chapters in his life-long novel--from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina to the election of President Obama-- Scott-Heron turns inward for bland philosophizing and surprisingly hollow personal reflections, as exemplified by the two-part opening and closing track "On Coming from a Broken Home," a tribute to his grandmother powered by a sample from Kanye West, who has previously sampled him.
Is Scott-Heron capable of better at this stage in his life and career? What could this album have sounded like if Kanye had been his partner instead of Russell? It's impossible to say based on the unfulfilling sounds of these 15 tracks, which clock in at less than 30 minutes. But it's only fair to compare them to the best this artist has given us in the past, and they fall far short of that storied mark.