Review Summary: The legendary underground hip-hop DJ drops his signature sample-driven sound for a more upbeat, club-driven style relying more heavily on vocals and raps that is bound to scratch more heads than wax.
I’ll be blunt, DJ Shadow has me scared shI
tless. And I’ve been through some arguably weird things in my life: I’ve been mugged twice, had my life threatened with a baseball bat by the Russian mob, nearly been mauled by a bear while camping, and been hit by a car. I’ve also had several concussions and had to have an operation on my lung a few years ago. Yet still, despite all this I spent a good five minutes in the record store today staring at the legendary sample junkie’s new LP The Outsider
like I was about to commit some sort of horrible atrocity by buying it. To make matters worse it prompted me to realize, “has this what my life has become"” Am I seriously that scared to buy an album"
If you haven’t been aware, my fear can be (at least somewhat) rationalized. Next to The Replacements, Jeff Buckley, and Frank Zappa no other artist can lay claim to such critical prestige as Josh Davis can. His exceptional debut Entroducing…
took its cue from the Dust Brothers as it birthed a gorgeously lush and atmospheric landscape of beats and groove constructed entirely from samples. His full-length sophomore, 2002’s The Private Press
obviously did not climb to the mighty ranks of the former (as if any album these days could anyway), but it was still damn good. And then there’s the plethora of work that he has done with UNKLE, Cut Chemist, Dan the Automator, the bulk of Quannum, Q-Bert…I could go on. Needless to say, when it was announced that Shadow’s upcoming LP was to have a more “Hyphy”-oriented sound, and more shockingly, that his traditional staple of juggling obscure samples has been opted out in favor of relying on guest vocalist/rappers (and commercial ones at that), the speculation was unleashed. Myself included.
In this case, one might say that its more rational to argue that Davis should be the one consumed with fear by this upcoming release. After all, Shadow is pretty much beloved by the vast majority of music critics everywhere and such a drastic change in sound is bound to not please such a compassionate demographic. In today’s media, “professional” music critics have gained a lot of leverage in deciding what’s good and what’s not for the population, despite still living in their parents’ basements, not being able to afford properly fitting jeans, and perpetually unable to score women (and when they do, they’re usually quasi-socialist vegetarians, which I guess is a good thing since they won’t eat a lot when you take them out to restaurants).
Not surprisingly, The Outsider
was released today to lukewarm results, as a quick browse on metacritic.com will reveal a developing arsenal of confused and bewildered opinions from music critics and dedicated fans alike. I mentioned that Shadow’s latest here has a more “hyphy” sound" What the fuc
k is hyphy you ask" Well, it’s a newly emerging style of hip-hop emanating from the San Francisco Bay Area that is often characterized by thick beats, heavy synthesizers and gritty, loose rhythms. Some would go so far as to think of it as a form of West Coast crunk. I don’t think I have to connect to dots to explain why many have been so antsy in the release of this album (Once again, myself included).
So yes, I bought the album, sheepishly stuffing into my bag all the while mentally obsessing with said object as if it was a time bomb waiting to lay waste to my expectations. However, the more I thought about it, the more rational Davis’ sudden progression as an artist seemed to me. A decade-plus of crafting a signature sound around record sampling and beat juggling is bound to get tiresome and personally hackneyed, even if it means overwhelming critical acclaim. Couple in the fact that Shadows’ own sound is beginning to become replicated by a plethora of up-and-coming artists and that the Hyphy scene is awfully geographically close to his home base, even such a drastic shift as documented by The Outsider
But enough talk. Enough hype. Enough disastrous speculation and fear mongering. Is this a good album or not" Well, borrowing (stealing) the words of Rev. Lovejoy “Short answer ‘yes’ with an ‘if’. Long answer, ‘no’ with a ‘but’.” Listening to this album in its entirety for the first time is like playing musical Russian roulette, just waiting for that bullet of a horrible track that makes one want to smash the CD into tiny little pieces and cry in the corner (but not really).
The opening track, aptly named Outsider Intro
is less a piece of music but a “script”, yes a script, written by Davis himself and spoken plainly Oliver Tobias, whoever that is. The music is arguably very Shadow-esque in fact, featuring a chopped-up piano chord and some grandiose tympani rolls and rising synths. Yet other than that, its needlessly pointless and it only serves to further agitate new listeners and what may possibly be beyond this next track as it generally no insight as to what this album is gonna sound like. However those speculations are answered with the first “real” piece of music, This Time(I’m Gonna Try it My Way)
, a smooth track that utilizes a full band, The Heliocentrics (who actually handle the brunt of organic and recorded instrumental on the album), at Davis’ expense. Amidst the jazzy guitar, mellow wahs, and graceful Tom Bell-styled strings, the sublime vocals evoke the same kind of eerie vibe that distinguished Shadow’s early work. Interestingly enough, those sonic recollections end there (for now) as the next batch of tracks reveal the newfound “hyphy” sound in full force.
is a hard pill for long-time Shadow fans to swallow. Keak da Sneak’s and Turf Talk’s gritty raps about clubbin’ and booty is generally the polar opposite of Entroducing…
. Musically it follows through on this mood, as it is a confusing wash of synthesizers, clickity-clack rhythms and thick-as-molasses beats that is light years away from what the listener could anticipate. Oddly enough, this track is actually quite catchy, unlike the next song, Turf Dancing
which merely sounds like a poor crunk imitation rather than a hyphy original. Weak handclap, squiggly electronic bleeps and heavy synths make it an obvious attempt of Shadow trying to break into the club scene. Keep Em Close
meanwhile is a tad more redeeming as it fleshes out a more laid-back feel, but still manages to keep the spastic elements of the previous tracks. The rap provided by Nump is an interesting narrative of robbery riddled with paranoia and braggadocio, despite the rather annoying electronic bleeps that dominate the clumsy beat.
Where much of the hyphy template is hit-and-miss, and largely miss especially to new listeners, the strongest track comes surprisingly from the guest rapper that caused the most controversy for being on a DJ Shadow album, David Banner, on the anti-White House, Katrina-obsessed Seein Thangs
. Here old Shadow elements merge nicely with his new sonic obsessions as the thick beat complimented with tight snares rolls and a brooding synth line gels with some obtuse piano melodies and ghostly female vocals that invoke the hollowness of submerged New Orleans streets.
However, just as “the new sound” starts to get worked in, Shadow makes yet another abrupt turn with Broken Levee Blues
, a jazzy organic instrumental that largely sounds completely out of place and even unnecessary. It sounds even more out of context in particular as it melds into the DC-hardcore influenced pulsating rhythms of Artifact
. Once again, the song sounds cool on its own, but fails to make any sense given the wider context of the album as Shadow seems intent on barraging the listener with as many different sounds as possible and then trying to jam them together as a whole like a second-rate jigsaw puzzle.
on the other hand provides a much more rewarding listening experience. At seven and a half minutes, it’s the longest track on the album as exemplified by its bluesy guitar riff, a strong range of variance in the beat (going from punkishly face-paced to a laidback "uestlove-style backbeat), subtly gorgeous female vocals and perhaps most importantly Phonte’s smooth and captivating delivery. However, you have to disregard the notion that Little Brother gets groupies, particularly like the devious Phonte mentions. Although midway through it tends to stray into extended-jam classic rock territory with its pulsating bass riff and ugh, drum solo, it best documents the format of a DJ Shadow mashup that listeners are used to.
From this point, Shadow opts for a more sublime and less-frantic approach and the next set of tracks are most definitely the ones that long-time fans will flock to for sonic relief. Triplicate/Something Happened That Day
reopens the dusty milk crate that contains those spooky hollow string melodies, obscure vocal samples and foreign-sounding wails that permeated much of Shadow’s early work, albeit with a more minimalist edge. The Tiger
meanwhile maintains itself as one of the stronger tracks by mashing up a bouncy guitar riff, various tribal percussive elements, and eclectic drones of feedback and reverb against the smooth emotive vocals provided by Christopher Karloff. Erase You
indulges in a little too much Brit-pop vocally, but picks up the pieces as it incorporates spastic flute samples, a tight and snappy snare-driven beat, and ghostly guitar.
At this point the album turns to what is perhaps the most confusing track, What Have I Done
featuring Christina Carpenter. The spoken word lyrics, syrupy guitar strums and sparse atmosphere just makes it, well, weird. And incredibly lame. You Made It
follows in this manner with its unnecessary sample of strings, jangly guitars and second-rate Chris Martin impressions. Seriously, Davis should know better. Or at least you’d think.
Interestingly enough, the last three tracks mark a return to more upbeat sound displayed earlier and tired-out ears welcome Enuff
, almost with eagerness. The rhythmic guitar sample, tight handclaps and light electronic melodies are a great counter to the dense beat provided by Davis. Additionally the smooth and energetic raps provided by Q-Tip and longtime Shadow collaborator Lateef the Truth Speaker makes the song great harmless fun. Dats My Part
, the last original track on the album achieves the perfect hyphy sound that Davis has been aiming out throughout the course of the album. Featuring local legend E-40, the beat doesn’t sound over-produced or too dense. Much credit goes to E-40’s bouncy verses. He also gets credit for being the first rapper to “shoot you like Dick Cheney”. Relatively by the end of the album, one almost forgets what the calamity was about. Then the remix of 3 Freaks
takes over and you remember why. Um, press stop at this point.
Overall, its incredibly hard to describe what kind of feelings are appropriate after listening to this album. The album is not great, but its not horrible or even sub-par, as voiced extensively by fans and music critics abound. The biggest issue is really not the change in sound once you get past, but Davis’ inability to decide between what sound he wants as he constantly flip-flops between upbeat club-driven beats, jazzy interludes and Brit-sounding organic trip-hop. However, Davis is still a crafty fellow as he (mostly) groups these elements together throughout the course of the album, rather than wedging each different-sounding track between each other, which would’ve been much worse. Like when my mixtapes from 4 years ago when I thought it was cool to sandwich Gangstarr between Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Converge. Fortunately, Davis knows how to orchestrate and album better than I do. All I’m good at is complaining about them (and even worse about the people who complain about them).
The hyphy elements of the album are not particularly horrible. Confusing, yes. Half-baked, certainly. However Shadow gets it right here and there and more importantly, its good to see the artist often associated with bleak depressing sample-driven beats to finally be having some fun. I mean, with all the critical praise he’s gotten in the past years, he’s bound to be upbeat eventually. I might even go so far as to call it an instance of quantum criticism, as the glory bestowed upon the legendary beat junkie inadvertently changed the outcome of his new material. But of course, that’s just a stupid theory. Don’t be afraid to check out this album, and definitely don’t be afraid to enjoy, but just keep on your toes, because it is definitely not the kind of DJ Shadow one has heard before.
Dats My Part