The mark of genius: the ability to transform familiar elements, to deconstruct them while also having the capacity to imprint something of the artist's interior world (his/her 'soul') to make it a cohesive whole.
This music can be approached in many different ways; as the heartfelt expression of how it feels to be oppressed, how it feels to live in the United States as a black man in the 1970s and since, but it also represents as a kind of 'new poetry' set to music that melded spiritual jazz elements with an explicitly political edge.
All and none of the above, perhaps, as hearing this you can't imagine any other artist, other than Gil Scott-Heron releasing this work, principally because of the vocal performance - one of the great vocal performances it seems to me.
What stopped me, though, when listening to this again recently apart from the musical accompaniment was the ambiguity of the lyrics carried by the shifting perspective (from first person, I to how the man is seen - or not seen - by others, his children, his wife):
Such splitting works in that it makes the singer's personal experience universal - Scott-Heron is singing on behalf of those without a voice - but also destabilises our point of reference, or connection. But then, you notice that these external perceptions are his alone, thoughts whirring around in his head and feelings of internalised shame, fear of his subsumed violence.
On the basis of language and imagery some of the lines in this song are extremely powerful; for example this section which starts boldly talking about 'Black babies in the womb ..' almost in the style of Billie Holiday's 'Strange Fruit' singing of 'black bodies' ...
Both pieces of music allow the facts to be presented simply without commentary as if it were a photograph.
But Gil Scott-Heron's inclusion of the final line, 'heir to a spineless man who never forgets' (that he is a prisoner) completely upsets the documentary style description to something more complex. The reference to babies 'smacked on the ass when they're squalling and wet' links with the opening where he introduces himself:
This is a dramatic movement away from 'Strange fruit' - both are laments and have equal affective power - but in 'The prisoner' Gil Scott-Heron implies that the violence is not separate to him, not committed by white racists in the South, but something inside his self: 'If I follow my mind, I know I'll slaughter my own'. Four decades plus on, this is still extremely brave.
Compare this song with another released the same year, 1971 by David Ruffin 'Heaven help us all' from the unreleased David album:
Now I love this song too, mainly for the way it all comes together in a cohesive whole, but Ruffin is doing his thing, we know this, we feel this; it's a performance, a flawless performance but there is distance (sure, anger can be felt there, as he lists all the 'people with their backs against the wall' but it's also ironic, as it's hard to imagine Ruffin believing any of this).
In contrast, Scott-Heron's lyrics and delivery are painful, difficult. We find ourselves inside his consciousness as a man who fears his own potential for violence, surrounded by people who refuse, or are unable to see him for who he is, or who he could be.
Musically too 'The Prisoner' is extremely rich, perfectly showing off Scott-Heron's immaculate vocal style. I particularly appreciate the unmade beginning, where the musicians are spooling their instruments, tuning, meandering about ... as if there is a kind of desire to show the materiality of the music, the fact that it is made, constructed. The drum, too is striking for me: very basic, disappearing completely at times, a kind of pounding of skin.
Five minutes in there is a very elegant coming together of the different instruments, especially the piano line by Brian Jackson (Scott-Heron's chief collaborator in this era) that continues for a few minutes, before Scott-Heron returns. And then at the very end the percussive elements return, again in a kind of deconstructed way, sounding like shells.