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    Thursday, August 10, 2006

    Review #3: The Outsider by DJ Shadow

    The Outsider - DJ Shadow

    "Shadow, you got some nuts for this one," David Banner declares at the start of track seven. Of course, it won’t take you that long to figure that out. Anyone who’s heard the hyphy-heavy "3 Freaks" or sampled the outrage dominating the message boards or even glanced at the tracklisting knows that this isn’t your usual cratedigger territory. The early reaction got so loud that DJ Shadow felt need to issue a defense on his website:

    The new album is diverse. Probably one of the most diverse records ever made. And I’m not talking about the now-played-out concept (which we at Mo’ Wax helped invent 13 years ago) of mixing a bunch of genres together on every track, but rather rap songs that are rap songs. CREDIBLE rap songs. Rock songs that are rock songs. CREDIBLE rock songs. Folk songs that are folk songs, etc. And I believe that in this iTunes, mixtape world, people can handle the diversity.

    On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see an artist of Shadow’s stature reinvent himself. Actually, forget refreshing. It’s cool and impressive and exciting to imagine how the man who gave us the landmark Endtroducing... and the surprisingly underrated The Private Press could reset the paradigm this time. And I’m glad that he’s consciously ignoring the fans’ demands to set his own path. If serious artists subjected themselves to popular decree, Radiohead would currently be touring behind The Bends, Vol. 6: Even Bendier.

    On the other hand—and what I’m about to say, as a hardcore Josh Davis fan, pains me deeply—The Outsider is a straight-up disaster. Even in the days of blurred genres, shuffle functions, MP3 blogs and Girl Talk-esque ADHD, the album sounds like a mess. It’s as if Shadow recorded a hundred tracks and randomly chose seventeen of them. The songs don’t speak to each other at all and it’s full of WTF transitions. If the music were better, The Outsider could try to pass as a badly sequenced greatest hits collection.

    The elephant in the MP3 player is obviously Shadow's embrace of hyphy, so I’ll start from there. Featured on four tracks including the lead single and closer, the Bay Area phenomenon has left most people weighing in either confused or turned off. But here in the Yay, hyphy is all too prominent, the only quasi-interesting sound to crack our very boring airwaves. Like any subgenre, it has its share of good songs ("Sizzlin'") and a lot of annoying ones ("Muscle Cars," "Ghost Ride It"), and I was eager to see what Shadow could add to the Federation or Keak da Sneak sound. As it turns out, not much. Maybe I should congratulate him for not mainstreaming the underground or putting too much of a personal stamp on the music, but either way, his presence is as covert as his name. Any producer could’ve given us these beats.

    Shadow fares a lot better when he pairs up with the aforementioned David Banner on "Seein' Thangs." It follows up on the crunk foreshadowing of Funky Skunk and ends up as the best, most complete track on The Outsider. As Mississippi-bred Banner unleashes his fury over the Hurricane Katrina response, Shadow matches the message with a dark, malevolent beat. The ghostly voice wailing and soundbites of desperate survivors set the song apart even further.

    The two other rap tracks, "Backstage Girl" and "Enuff," also feature thoughtful guest spots. The former has Phonte Coleman of North Carolina’s Little Brother rapping about groupie affections. It’s a fun, silly song that succeeds in getting your head bobbing, but it does get old on multiple listens at seven-minutes-plus. "Enuff" is more concerned with moving your feet than your neck, a radio-ready crossover with an actual pop chorus. An uncharacteristic direction for Q-Tip and Lateef The Truth Speaker, it plays out better than expected. It doesn't help though that "Enuff" doesn't even remotely flow with the songs around it.

    That's because, as Shadow warned us, he’s diving into genres without discrimination. Sometimes, it works, but too often doesn’t. "Triplicate/Something Happened That Day" is the clearest throwback to older Shadow atmospherics and a nice consolation prize for the faithful. Another instrumental, the frantic punk-spiked "Artifact," is another winner. There's also "The Tiger," the promised "CREDIBLE rock" with Kasabian's Sergio Pizzorno and ex-member Christopher Karloff. It sounds like a lost song from Psyence Fiction, which at this point is good enough for me.

    On the downside, Shadow enlists Stateless singer Chris James to whine over/sabotage two tracks. James is a dead-ringer for Chris Martin (get ready to hear this comparison in every single review from now on), and one Chris Martin is more than enough. The beats are great, but try to focus on them over the oh-so-spacy whine of a Thom Yorke-wannabe-wannabe. Christina Carter of Charalambides' fame also talks and sings through "What Have I Done," but that’s a question that's better not to answer. In a similar vein, there are still two other songs, an intro and a brief skit I haven’t addressed, but there’s not much there I particularly feel compelled to say.

    All in all, I wish the news were better. I wish the album had any semblance of cohesion, purpose or instinct or that I could imagine wanting to listen to it in a few years. In truth though, I can’t even picture listening to it again in a few weeks. Just hearing it enough to form an opinion became a frustrating chore. What ultimately proved so maddening about it isn’t the hyphy hoopla or the heavy reliance on vocals. What hurts the most is that The Outsider does have potential and it could have been incredible. Instead, we’re left with what is sure to be the biggest disappointment of 2006.
    4.4/10 [Buy it]

    The (awful) video to lead single "3 Freaks"

    Comments on "Review #3: The Outsider by DJ Shadow"


    Blogger Rachel said ... (2:08 AM) : 

    Damn, I am sad. Actually I don't know what to feel right now...On one hand I am bummed but on the other hand your review is so good that I am also pleased/satisfied.

    But still, damn...You know what I am begining to notice about highly anticipated albums? 9 out of 10 times they just let us down on the rough dirty ground.



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