DJ Shadow "The Outsider" [review]

I think I should explain my love and respect for the music of DJ Shadow. I was initially introduced to Josh Davis through his EP for Mo'Wax, What Does Your Soul Look Like?. My boy had it on import CD, and let me borrow it one beautiful night. There was instrumental ("trip-hop"?) hip-hop, and then there was the tapestries that Shadow was creating. From that, I heard him on the Meiso album DJ Krush put out, they did a track together, and Shadow's bit was the illest -- perfect drum work, pianos on time, all that. Then the ultimate album came out: Endtroducing.... This album is one of the cornerstones of sampled Hip-Hop, letting you really know how excellent and somber and dark and funky and emotional sample-based music can be. He set a high bar with that one, and maybe that's the problem. He put out the Psyence Fiction disc under that UNKLE moniker (with James Lavelle), showing that he could put out tracks with more vocals and such. Hell, I wasn't the BIGGEST fan of Private Press, but he had a ton of wicked ideas on that one. How he got from that to The Outsider is beyond me...

He's said in interviews that the reason he chose that title is because that's how he felt in the industry, or something. That's understandable --- Shadow is by no means a household name. He has ebbed and flowed in the underground, and made some very challenging music. I don't know if he is really going for what this album suggests, but fuck it, let's lay it down. The first full track, "This Time", sounds like Shadow is stating his case for what's he's doing this go round ("this time, I'm gonna try it my way" is the refrain). Which is all well and good, but do we need the pseudo-blaxploitation 70's-funk jam? In the hands of a lesser producer, this might be a great B-side. In the hands of Shadow, this sounds like "MPC in my sleep". This is immediately followed by the first single, "3 Freaks", which features Keak Da Sneak (of "Tell Me When To Go" fame) and some cat called Turf Talk. Now, hyphy is cool, I dig that shit, but I mean what is Shadow trying to do? The beat knocks for a hyphy thing, but it sounds like Shadow is making a high-concept beat tape as opposed to an album. There's even a video for this abortion. This is followed by ANOTHER hyphy track, "Turf Dancing" (whatever the fuck THAT is), features the DUMBEST line talking about a chick "ghostriding" his dick. Now, I know what ghostriding a whip is, but how are you getting props for a chick ghostriding your dick?

The next track is actually good. "Seein' Thang" features David Banner going political on your ass over a dark, crunkstastic beat. He drops lines about black on black crime, Katrina thoughts, and other atrocities that have occurred over the last couple of years. After this is a sampled blues tune turned into the "Broken Levee Blues". It's nice guitar work, but just doesn't feel like it should be its own track or by itself. "Artifact" sounds like a punk-DnB hybrid that was probably a great idea in theory, but does not seem to flesh out. All aggression, no direction, which is a constant thing running through this album. Little Brother's Phonte drops some rhymes on "Backstage Girl", a story about a freak who seduces Phonte backstage. Ends up the chick is a MySpace freak. The backing track is a slow, funky, bluesy joint. Nicely done, actually. This leads us into what I like to call the "Final Fantasy" section of the disc. If you've played any of the Final Fantasy video games, you realize that they have really dope soundtracks, for being video games. This is not something I'd like to have playing on my discman or mp3 player. "The Tiger" features a fuzzy guitar and some conga thumping. Basic fast forward fodder. "Erase You" has the best drum edits of the entire album; Shadow really takes it back, showing you what he can do. He flips a sampled break and makes you feel like its a live drummer licking the snares. The vocals could have been nixed, but this is not a perfect world. The Christina Carter spoken-word bit in the intro of "What Have I Done" really reminds me of a cinematic sequence in a PSX RPG game: very confused, sounds attacking you from right and left, with random vocals dripping in and out. With the visual, the audio works... without it, it's grating. For some reason, one of the WORST tracks features Q-Tip and Lateef the Truth Speaker. Fitting, since Shadow and A Tribe Called Quest suffer from the same disease.

Well, the disease was initially diagnosed by my studying ATCQ. They created Hip-Hop masterpieces with The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders; once their following albums came out, people hated on them. It wasn't that these discs were so terrible, but the fact remains, that plateau they created has now been tarnished. If these subsequent discs were created by lesser artists, they would be seen as solid contributions. In the hands of masters/legends, they are seen as shitty fodder. This is how the entirety of this album comes across: the makings of an artist just getting his feet wet. I can appreciate the scatter-brained genre hopping. The leftfield thoughts. My understanding of what Shadow can do will not allow me to fully appreciate this album. No matter how hyphy or mystical or blues-y he gets. This was not a good look for Shadow at all. Not at all.

rock the dub gives this CD a 5 out of 10 for disappointing soundscapes from a time-tested producer.

Want more information on DJ Shadow? Check out his official website.


Anonymous said...

well done this review, though i´d be not that strict with Shadow.
The fact that the album sounds different is that it´s produced in the US afaik and you can hear the US-influenced beats. Before that he produced on Mo´ Wax with James Lavelle; no wonder it sounds different but I agree, he´s done better work before ;-)

khal said...

eh, Shadow's Mo Wax output was done by himself. The only time he was working with Lavelle was on the UNKLE project.

And, from what Shadow's people told me when I tried to get an interview, he was working on this LP in the UK. He was (is?) living in the UK for a bit. The US influence is solely to do with where his head was at at the time.

Thank you for checking me out though.