Gil Scott-Heron reinforces his position as Godfather of Rap on Free Will, an introspective and soulful album roughly the length of a demo tape. Police brutality, the consequences of violence and self-exploration on this 2001 re-issue make excellent arguments for his place in the canon of spoken word—not only because of his lyrical content and profundity, but because he was a master of delivery, even in his idealistic twenties.
At times, Free Will is sometimes abstract and waning, like on “The Middle of Your Day”, where the message is lucid and haphazardly delivered or “Wiggy”, a haiku-like appreciation of natural black hair. Scott-Heron is most effective during meditations on potential freedoms and where they can be found, when he allows his theories to blend with the melancholy music that plays throughout.
It’s also a fitting thirty-year-old album and ironic. At a time when civil liberties are increasingly challenged and police brutality continues to be a national issue, it’s haunting to listen to Scott-Heron’s anxiety and piercing indictments of what is meant to be a description of the past. The introspection at work here are vivid reminders of the journey of a people struggling with self-love and respect; a stark 12-track ode to freedom of mind and spirit that pulses under the skin with funky riffs.
What makes Free Will a standout is not what has defined Scott-Heron’s legacy—he’s less angry here than agitated. Instead, his subdued delivery and potent lyrics are easy to listen to because of his conversational tone. After publishing a novel in 1968 and delivering a potent debut with “Small Talk at 125th and Lenox” in 1970 and the critically acclaimed “Pieces of a Man” in 1971, Scott-Heron had progressed the point of musical experimentation when he recorded Free Will. The voice of a fiery movement and known best for “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”—a thorough manifesto of political agency for black folks concerned with dismantling the apathy inherent in a technological age—was more tentative and smooth his third time out.
The title track not only showcases Scott-Heron’s long-time collaborator Brian Jackson but also offers the fluttering of Hubert Laws’ flute combined with a meditation on personal responsibility. The extended version of the song is also found here and flows better. The music sometimes feels dated, but the lyrics are what transcend decades.
“Get Out of the Ghetto Blues” is just that—a valiant sketch of those who “think you’re cool ‘cuz they bus your kids to school”, with a relentless guitar and speakeasy vibe of a juke joint on Saturday night. Part of Scott-Heron’s appeal is not only that he throws barbs at the masses, he speaks directly to his personal experience as a Tennessee boy affected by the prejudice he faced during the integration of public schools.
The intentionally slow “Speed Kills” is a poignant story of addiction, but it drags along. Heron’s voice is at its raspy best throughout, especially on “Ain’t No New Thing”, an amusing look at the appropriation of black music and culture by the American mainstream. When he says “we used to white people tryin’ to rob us / Why don’t they try stealing some of this power / It ain’t no new thing anything they don’t understand / They try to destroy / We used to having black innovators copied and sent back to us We used to having people try to rob us, it ain’t no new thing” he is the bold voice of his folk, stressing a theme a new generation of music fans have applied to lauded rip-offs like Justin Timberlake.
This is not an introductory album into the mind of Gil Scott-Heron, because too much of it leans on sentimentality in lieu of artistic merit—that weighs down songs like “Did You Hear What They Said”, a short song meant to be a glimpse at a mother who has lost her son to violence but becomes a lilting whine relegated to a little more than three minutes. Although many of the songs suffer from their brevity (only one is more than five minutes long), Free Will is still an contemplative journey in all its understated glory. It’s ironic, too, how his life progressed, and ironic. But his ideas and thoughts linger long after the CD ends, which is the best reason to listen to it at least once.