Casting Off Shadows

Josh Davis goes outside, and disappears in the light

DJ Shadow
The Outsider
Universal Motown

In the 10 years since Endtroducing emerged like some b-boy Bitches Brew, DJ Shadow has been reduced to a borderline-strawman idea of indie-snob art-hop—an unsmiling glower lurking on the pages of Urb and Wire, patron saint of thousand-dollar eBay funk 45s and white college-kid insularity. That he was deep into hyphy—the Bay Area's hyperactive, raucous, synth-heavy answer to crunk—while blogspotters were still waiting for Pharrell to catch fire again is beside the point; to some folks he'll always be reviled as the man who turned block-party breaks into fuzak. Shadow's as uncomfortable with this misrepresentation as he is with cranking out Endtroducing soundalikes ad nauseam, and if a change in style means he alienates those fans who liked his music for questionable reasons—to borrow a joke from Mr. Show, "the fun of rap without all that rap"—then so be it. His "aw, nuts to them" attitude still beats a career releasing flailing compromises. (I'll give this much to '02's prog-slog sophomore baffler The Private Press: It sure as hell doesn't sound like anyone else pressured him to do it.) For someone whose approach to hip hop seemed so far removed from any preconceived notion of "realness" that his records get filed under "club" in some stores, the urge to publicly affiliate himself with the core of a rap scene he never explicitly rejected has always been close to the surface; seems like he's the only one who realizes that "Why Hip Hop Sucks in '96" was his own private joke.

The title of The Outsider reads as proof that he's aware of this rep, and there's a chance that the kid on the cover—face hidden behind a Lone Ranger mask—is his self-representation, hitting the reset button and starting over as an anonymous, youthful, expectation-free entity. The album's first song, "This Time," is a red herring—a typically Shadow-esque, meticulously constructed Boz Scaggs-meets-Bobby Womack amalgam that sounds like his most seamless sample job yet. But they're not samples, they're a live-instrument reconstruction of the '96 Shadow sound, and after tipping his hand in the chorus ("This time/I'm gonna try it my way") he unceremoniously dumps the listener into a crunk/hyphy rubber room and snickers, "good luck."

Not afraid to alienate you: Josh Davis, a.k.a. DJ Shadow
Dirk Lindner
Not afraid to alienate you: Josh Davis, a.k.a. DJ Shadow

"3 Freaks" was the first salvo of Shadow's new sound when it was released as a single last year, and it's a jaw-dropper: Muppet-fart horns, vulcanized beats that sound like "Come Clean" caught in a Tesla coil, and Turf Talk and Keak da Sneak as the likably Beavis and Butt-head-esque Yay Area Ying Yang Twins. As a party cut, it's a good incentive to use the word "stupid" as a superlative. But like the record's other choice hyphy cuts—especially the gothic synth-funk of "Dat's My Part" with E-40 and the teetering Nintendo melody of Nump's turn on the vertiginous "Keep 'Em Close"—its style might as well have come from a complete unknown, albeit one with an ear for the streets. Same goes for David Banner's chainsaw flow going Leatherface on crack mythos in "Seein' Thangs" and the conscious-rap coastal summit of Q-Tip and Lateef on "Enuff": Shadow's biggest chance yet to prove himself as a hip-hop producer for MCs to actually rhyme over, whether they're crunk or backpacker, has resulted in a handful of beats covered in spirit gum and latex, rendered unrecognizably glossy and radio-friendly. Pretend they're culled from a gifted debut record, and they somehow make a lot more sense.

Good thing, because something on this record has to. Like Psyence Fiction, the 1998 UNKLE album that Shadow barely kept afloat under the weight of its scattershot guest list (Kool G. Rap! Thom Yorke! Badly Drawn Boy?)—as well as the crunk/psych handshake of last year's Funky Skunk mix CD—Shadow opts to switch his focus to a vaguely rockish haze in the album's last half, this time to its detriment. The transition to mushy AOR is a palate-cleansing but confusing series of self-cancelling segues, starting at Banner's cut and careening between the brief lonesome funk guitar of "Broken Levee Blues," the punk rock spazcore of "Artifact," the cosmically sloppy seven-and-a-half-minute Phonte vehicle "Backstage Girl," and the John Cage ambience of "Triplicate/Something Happened That Day." What follows is 20 nightmarishly boring minutes: "The Tiger" sounds like it came from the score from a particularly inert heist flick and features him what sings for Kasabian, "What Have I Done" is new-age valium, and there are two droopy-faced odes to self-enveloped moping from the Coldplay-cosplaying Chris James. Then that Q-Tip/Lateef song comes on and it sounds like fucking "Paid in Full."

Playing stylistic Katamari Damacy isn't always a guarantee of failure—hell, it did wonders for RJD2 on Since We Last Spoke—but Shadow's attempt at expanding his horizon stretched it so thin it looks like North Dakota's. Still, if there's one thing to be less sure of than what was going on in Shadow's head during the recording process, it's what could've salvaged this record for his diehards in the first place. If he went wall-to-wall hip hop for an all-encompassing Bay rap state of the union, or at least cut out the mope-rock, this might have been a good record—but it'd still be a headscratcher to all those fiends who wouldn't allow him to do anything but reendtroduce himself.

 
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