A brief history lesson: by the time Jamie Smith was born, Gil Scott-Heron had already released 13 studio albums and one live album. He had already published three books—The Vulture and Small Talk from 1970 and The Nigger Factory from 1972—and had appeared in Robert Mugge’s 1982 film Black Wax. His is a distinctive sound that incorporates spoken word, beatnik beat poetry, and jazz, blues and soul. This laid the foundations for what we now call hip-hop. Indeed, his influence, both musical terms, and with respect to his militant activism, can be felt in hip-hop’s very pores. He recently spent some time in jail. Jamie Smith, on the other hand, has released one album, in The xx’s stunning debut from 2009, and is quickly gaining a lot of respect as a DJ and remix artiste.
Some context: last year, Gil Scott-Heron released his first album in 16 years, entitled I’m New Here. Critically well received, it was a sublime collection of songs of experience, tortured torch ballads, shattered blues. We’re New Here is, ultimately, a remix album of I’m New Here. In that sense, at least, it’s not unlike, say, the Mad Professor’s take on Protection by Massive Attack. But where No Protection was a collaboration between contemporaries, We’re New Here is a point of collision between old and new, of influence and those influenced. It’s a meeting between youth and young manhood and a mournful, wizened old sage, mediated by music.
The 28-second-long interlude “Parents”, lifted pretty much in one piece from the original album, can thus serve as a model for this series of reinterpretations. In its original context, it’s specifically about listening to one’s parents, on feeling their blood pouring through your own veins, their ideas ringing in your ears. Here, it’s more about Jamie xx paying his dues to a musical tradition. It’s about acknowledging that there’s nothing new under the sun, that the past is always decanting itself into the new. It’s a gesture to the listener, asking us to recognize that in order to get what he’s doing, we need to come to terms with the historical depth of dusty old record collections.
Make no mistake, I’m New Here was excellent. Brevity was its only real flaw. It’s oh-so-short interludes may have turned the hip-hop conventions that Scott-Heron helped invent on its own heads, but that didn’t stop it from interrupting the album’s flow a little bit. On We’re New Here, Smith feels compelled to replicate this. Indeed, five of the 13 tracks barely skirt the minute mark (and three of them are under 30 seconds long). The remaining eight tracks are outstanding. They’re like long lost Dead Sea Outtakes from xx. That album’s sly luxury is still there, but it’s fortified by a full-bodied, slo-mo, nigh-on-backwards, skank.
Opener “I’m New Here” is icy, almost dissonant. Moody and complex, it sets the tone for an album that performs a stunning balancing act between the avant-garde end of the dubstep fallout (James Blake, Mount Kimbie), while never compromising dance-ability, never once sounding bandwagonesque. The whole thing retains the strange beauty of the original album, but it implants a sense of dread. The beats are robust. The bass lines are smothering. There’s a density to “Home”, punctured by clattering snares and emphasized by Scott-Heron’s waterlogged muttering of the lyrics to his own “Home Is Where The Hatred Is”. The juddering “Running”, meanwhile, stomps so hard that it frees itself from its own earthly moorings, an extra-terrestrial take on what we’d ordinarily understand to be a hip-hop beat. Only on closer “I’ll Take Care Of You” does Smith just about choose to play it straight, and even then it sounds a bit like Galaxie 500 getting sunstroke at Café Del Mar.
Particularly good is “Ur Soul and Mine”, which pinches vocals from Rui Da Silva’s house classic “Touch Me” from back in 2001. Smith mangles its verses, but keeps the chorus. Indeed, his use of vocal samples is never short of exceptional. He picks them astutely, and subjects them to what sounds like melodic high-G training; as if pre-empting the loneliness of hyperspace, they all cry sweet little nothings, of mysterious encounters and acid heartbreak. This keeps it cryptic, but never bleak—“I was lonely and naïve”, laments the super-pitched Gloria Gaynor sample in “I’m New Here”, and it sounds as affecting, as relevant, as convincing as anything we can exhume from a Burial track.
Ultimately, We’re New Here succeeds because it manages to seamlessly reconcile the different traditions from which it draws—not just Gil Scott Heron’s uttering utterances, but UK Garage, the fibrous gloss of Seventeen Seconds-era The Cure, and R&B futurism. It all makes perfect sense for those of us who grew up during the late ‘90s. This was a time when music still had to be purchased (with money) and physically operated (with hands). It was a time when anyone with a burgeoning interest in music had to go to serious lengths to fight off teen pop pep rallies, post-grunge whingeing, and the Juggalo juggernaut that was nu-metal. The only accessible form of counter-attack was to invest our ears in the R&B and UK garage that Jamie Smith seems to love so much. The current “post-dubstep” scene is, then, the perfect climate for him to work in. We’re keeping our ears open for what he does next.