Four years after his sophomore album, The Private Press, and ten years after his seminal debut Entroducing..., Josh "DJ Shadow" Davis, the California-based producer and deejay credited with helping found the Solesides collective and popularizing instrumental hip hop, released his third album, The Outsider, with the help of Universal Records. In pretty much every way, this was a mistake that most likely tanked the guy's career.
That last sentence isn't included merely as a shocker intended to get you to click through to read the entire post, either. The Outsider signaled a massive departure in Shadow's overall aesthetic, largely abandoning the moody, atmospheric instrumentals that advertising agencies have just recently discovered are good backdrops to sell Chevrolets in favor of giving a giant push to the Bay Area-created "hyphy" scene, a subset of hip hop that focused on jittery beats and high-energy dancing, to put it in overly simplistic terms. In interviews leading up to the release of The Outsider, DJ Shadow referred to hyphy as "the most potent type of rap that the Bay Area has come up with since the early 90s": however, considering the phrase itself was immortalized on wax in 1994 by Keak da Sneak, one of the bigger names in the movement (the biggest, at least to most of you two, would be E-40, although apparently Interweb favorite Lil' B was associated with the sub-genre for a time), and that The Outsider was released twelve years later, it stands to reason that DJ Shadow may not have been all that into the hype until someone at his label pointed him in the general direction of his own goddamn city.
For good measure, Shadow also fills The Outsider with influences from blues, jazz, punk, and alt-rock, none of which are news to anyone who followed the man's past work. However, for the first time on a proper album (and not just on a b-side or a remix project), Shadow fills the album's ranks with guest stars, a good chunk of which come from the hip hop world, so as to not entirely discount his earlier successes. Given the hyphy inspiration present on much of the album, DJ Shadow picks up several of the bigger names in the scene in his ghost-ridden whip, including Keak, Turf Talk, and E-40, while also finding room for decidedly non-hyphy rappers such as Phonte, David Banner, and Q-Tip.
I realize that last paragraph may make The Outsider sound much more appealing than it truly is. Trust me, this shit sucks. Those of you who still hole The Private Press and (especially) Entroducing... in high regard might want to stop reading and wait until something else gets published on the site.
No, I'm serious. Stop reading if you don't want your image of DJ Shadow tainted in any way.
Still here, huh? Whatever, it's your funeral.
1. OUTSIDER INTRO
Well, that just happened.
2. THIS TIME (I'M GONNA TRY IT MY WAY)
Fans of tangentially-related hip hop artists trying out new things (which apparently do not exist, if online comments boards are to be believed) would be happy with this opening salvo, whose very title announces a change of direction for DJ Shadow. Built around a long vocal sample, “This Time (I'm Gonna Try It My Way)” stresses that The Outsider is going to sound a lot different that Shadow's previously heralded works, but inadvertently and aggressively amplifies the fact that the album sucks and will continue to suck for decades to come. This track is boring as shit. Those vocals should have remained buried in someone's garage underneath the rusted-out broken-down refrigerator that you can't be bothered to take out to the curb because you're “busy”. They are that bad. So no, this isn't a good sign, how are you doing?
3. 3 FREAKS (FEAT. KEAK DA SNEAK & TURF TALK)
As mentioned above, Shadow apparently discovered the hyphy scene, which is practically in his backyard, about a decade too late, jumping head-first into the trend like the worst hipster on the planet. While he at least recruited the dude that created the term “hyphy”, Keak Da Sneak, to drop bars (alongside Turf Talk), both rappers, whose performances weren't all that great anyway, are rendered nigh incomprehensible, both because of their respective deliveries (high-pitched and excitable to a fault) and, especially, Josh's production, which sounds like his computer malfunctioned during the recording process and he decided to roll with it. The only time the music ever approaches interesting is after the rapping ceases, at which point Shadow conveniently switches the beat to a much darker, catchier animal that could have clicked. Overall, though, you could throw a pebble anywhere in the Bay area and hut a better hyphy track without even trying very hard. Ugh.
4. DROOP-E DROP (FEAT. DROOP-E)
A brief interlude from Droop-E, E-40's son and a producer in his own right. Because if you can't get the star attraction to speak on your behalf like this, you grasp at the family straws. You'll be seeing him again around the end of the album, don't worry.
5. TURF DANCING (FEAT. THE FEDERATION & ANIMANIAKS)
Josh, continuing to pretend that hyphy is the best sub-genre of our chosen genre ever, turns in “Turf Dancing”, which at least sounds a little bit better than “3 Freaks”, even though The Federation and Animaniaks, whose only Discogs credit is fucking “Turf Dancing”, merely come across as okay. At least you can hear these guys this time around. But I imagine most DJ Shadow fans turned this shit off during “3 Freaks”, with good reason, mind you.
6. KEEP EM CLOSE (FEAT. NUMP)
Simultaneously pretty decent and pretty shitty. How, you ask, as though you actually give a shit when, in reality, nobody is actually reading this part of the review, since everyone checked out three tracks ago, and Max is obviously talking to himself, and what the fuck, now he's referring to himself in the third person, that's indicative of a much larger psychological problem, man, that dude needs help? Well, as a rap song, let's just say nobody's going to be asking DJ Shadow for beats anytime soon. Let's just say a bit more: Nump manages to work with what he's been given decently enough, his braggadocio at least approximating how a rap song should sound, and when compared to the rest of The Outsider thus far, he's the winner, but when compared to the genre as a whole, you won't give “Keep Em Close” even a first thought. Sigh.
7. SEEIN' THANGS (FEAT. DAVID BANNER)
Mississippi native David Banner swoops in to the Bay like a goddamn superhero, as he has Something To Say. Indeed, Banner's two verses discuss societal ills to such a degree that you're forgiven if you think you accidentally stumbled drunkenly upon the wrong classroom. Banner's never been one to hold his tongue (Shadow has to do that for him, as a most-likely-homophobic comment is censored out of the first verse), and you two may find yourself appreciating actual rap music on The Outsider, even when presented over Shadow's hyphy-and-a-half backing. Banner's post-Hurricane Katrina musings are especially potent. This wasn't bad, relatively speaking.
8. BROKEN LEVEE BLUES(FEAT. TAALAM ACEY)
David Banner's previous comments obviously led to the inclusion of “Broken Levee Blues”, DJ Shadow's guitar-fueled internalizing of the government response in New Orleans after the hurricane hit. Aside from some dialogue at the beginning, this is just an instrumental, and as it is, it's alright, but you'll miss the dense layers of samples you thought Shadow preferred to use.
9. ARTIFACT (INSTRUMENTAL)
If you're a hip hop fan and you're open-minded enough to branch out to DJ Shadow but refuse to listen to other musical genres, then “Artifact” is where I lose you. This instrumental seems to exist merely for Josh to get his punk nut off, as it is apropos to fucking nothing. (Actually, most of The Outsider thus far has no relation to anything that preceded it, now that I think about it.) If you're looking for a hip hop producer to fuck around with drums and guitars, you would do better to look elsewhere.
10. BACKSTAGE GIRL (FEAT. PHONTE COLEMAN)
Although Phonte (formerly of Little Brother, which you most likely already knew if you follow this blog at all) spits several verses on here, “Backstage Girl” is more of a showcase for DJ Shadow to parade around his alt-rock leanings over seven-minutes-plus of drum and guitar work. Given that the track is so goddamn long, and that the guest doesn't take up all that much time with his emoting over fucking a groupie (that sounds reductive, but Phonte still does good work on here), it follows that Shadow has plenty of opportunities to fuck with the musical backing, which he does, with varying degrees of success. Truthfully, the beat only becomes fascinating when the guitars are dropped in favor of a jazzy drum-n-bass feel. Groan.
11. TRIPLICATE / SOMETHING HAPPENED THAT DAY
Shadow fans who are still somehow listening along, clinging to the hope that something, anything on The Outsider would sound like it came from the same mind that spawned Endtroducing... or The Private Press, here is your bone that the host has thrown. The overly-simplistic “Triplicate / Something Happened That Day” manages to squeeze out more atmosphere and mood during its not-even-four-minutes runtime that the rest of the project has in ten tracks. And it still isn't a very good song. This is the soundtrack to a DJ Shadow fan slitting his wrists in the tub. Jesus fuck, is this album bad.
12. THE TIGER (FEAT. SERGIO PIZZORNO & CHRISTOPHER KARLOFF)
Shadow pulls in one-half of the British rock band Kasabian (at the time, anyway) for “The Tiger”, which is, basically, his idea of what he thinks Radiohead songs all sound like. Now, to make it very clear, I don't only listen to hip hop: it just tends to be most of what I write about on this blog. I like all kinds of music: I feel that limiting yourself to only one musical genre will ultimately leave you unsatisfied in your overall life, because you can't narrow every single feeling or emotion you may encounter into just hip hop. So that isn't the reason why I find The Outsider to be disappointing. No, what's happening is that The Outsider is missing DJ Shadow's heart: every track on this project sounds half-assed in their respective attempts to alter the course of our host's career, as though he's put in the bare minimum of work (read: “No, I put guitars in there. It's different, yeah?”, because in this example, Shadow is inexplicably British) and is expecting the same results as before. “The Tiger” isn't horrible, but your entertainment factor increases exponentially if (a) you already like Kasabian (who have also worked with Dan “The Automator” Nakamura in the past, so you two heads still reading this might want to check that out), or (b) if you just pretend that Thom Yorke is singing with his lungs filled with helium.
13. ERASE YOU (FEAT. CHRIS JAMES)
Meanders, in the way that trip-hop can sometimes to, for damn near seven minutes, which is just uncalled for, but overall, this sudden left turn (well, not so sudden, I guess, considering the previous track) wasn't bad. Chris James, of the UK group Stateless, lends vocals to a drum-heavy DJ Shadow exercise that comes with only a hint of melody. The song itself barely holds a structure: for a not-insignificant amount of time, it really does seem like Josh merely pointed at James and commanded him to sing at random times. But depending on my mood, I'm willing to let this one slide, and I'm sure the two of you might do the same.
14. WHAT HAVE I DONE (FEAT. CHRISTINA CARTER)
Takes nearly three minutes to switch from clipped, out-of-context dialogue to actual singing from the guest star. Trust me, you two won't even make it that far. Meh.
15. YOU MADE IT (FEAT. CHRIS JAMES)
Damn. I used up my “meh” too soon.
16. ENUFF (FEAT. Q-TIP & LATEEF THE TRUTH SPEAKER)
DJ Shadow changes the channel back to the hip hop spectrum, enlisting his fellow Solesides / Quannum Projects running buddy Lateef the Truth Speaker to drop some bars alongside A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip over a bizarrely punchy beat that almost, almost sounds like a blatant bid for radio airplay. Q-Tip completists (like myself, at least at one point in time, anyway) will be disappointed, since you can barely hear the motherfucker over the messy instrumental. Lateef gets the better showcase, but while he sounds alright, the track itself is garbage, so let's move on, people.
17. DAT'S MY PART (FEAT. E-40)
I guess it's both cool and strange to hear E-40 refer to our host as “the legendary DJ Shadow”, as though 40 sits around in his home in Vallejo bumping Endtroducing... on a regular basis, but hey, he might, how the hell would you know? Unless you actually are E-40, in which case, hello! Welcome to the blog! Shadow shifts back to the hyphy scene (because it's arguable that “Enuff” wasn't “hyphy” as much as it was “shitty”) for the Bay veteran, throwing so many beat elements at the guy that he can't do anything but adapt. 40 acquits himself nicely: “Dat's My Part” works much better than “3 Freaks”. But it still isn't anything that a person should actively seek out.
The final song on The Outsider appears only on the version of the album released in the United States, but isn't labeled as a bonus track. I mention this just in case a reader overseas looks at their copy and becomes confused. Oh, who am I kidding? Nobody owns this album, anywhere.
18. 3 FREAKS (DROOP-E REMIX) (FEAT. KEAK DA SNEAK, TURF TALK, & MISTAH F.A.B.)
Speaking of “3 Freaks”, The Outsider ends with a remix shepherded by 40's son Droop-E, who invites Mistah F.A.B. to contribute alongside the original players. I'm pretty sure the lyrics were all new, but I really can't be bothered to double-check, as much as I hated the original song. I know the hook has been altered a bit, and obviously F.A.B.'s bars are fresh, but whatever. Droop-E plays around with the music and finds some better avenues for the artists to take, trumping DJ Shadow on his own album. Yeah, I said it. And kids, that's why you don't let your DJ Shadow produce hyphy tracks.
FINAL THOUGHTS: As I had so eloquently put it in the introductory paragraphs, The Outsider sucks. It's not the severe tonal shift between projects that does this one in: it's the severe tonal shifts in between fucking songs that lend The Outsider a vibe of "whatever, I'll just slap my name on it and the critical acclaim will come in by the barrel". DJ Shadow squanders his goodwill so quickly within the span of a single album that he should write the screenplay for the remake of Brewster's Millions. It can't even be proven that the tracks that appear on this album came from the same mind that put together "Midnight In A Perfect World" or "Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt": where Endtroducing subverted expectations and turned the genre inside-out, The Outsider is content with adding further to the overall problem, and it commits the ultimate sin of being boring. The Outsider is so incoherent and piss-poor that someone should launch an investigation to determine if it was a different Josh Davis entirely that licensed the "DJ Shadow" name for the purpose of releasing this album upon the masses.
It has occurred to me that the previous paragraph is uniformly negative and that I should try harder to find something positive to write about here. Here's what I came up with: thank your lucky stars that you live in a world where you could easily ignore the fact that The Outsider even fucking exists. I really really really hated this album. No more questions.
BUY OR BURN? The fuck do you think?
BEST TRACKS: Only “Seein' Thangs” is decent enough to maybe track down, but even that's a stretch.
There's a bit more on DJ Shadow to be found here.