DJ Shadow: The Outsider

DJ Shadow
The Outsider
Universal Motown

I’d be willing to bet that at this point DJ Shadow wishes he could disassociate himself from Endtroducing… altogether. It is enough to say that unless something seriously unexpected occurs, everything ever written about him for the rest of his life and on through his obituary will begin with at least a token mention of the album, and perhaps if the reviewer is unkind it will also be said that he was never able to equal the achievement of his debut album. As much as this undoubtedly grates, I must admit to some degree of complicity in the matter myself. As recently as last year I wrote a long feature for this very site on the occasion of the deluxe reissue of Endtroducing…, praising the album to the high heavens and stopping just short of declaring it a lost shard of the revealed Godhead. It might be hard to get up in the morning while laboring under the weight of such fulsome praise as this: “It stands as an unparalleled achievement, the likes of which we may never see again.” In my defense, I will say that it’s the kind of album that practically begs for hyperbole.

In any event, it goes without saying that DJ Shadow (known to his mother as Josh Davis) will probably never record anything to equal it. But, you know, there are worse things than to have a seminal album under your belt. While some might find the infinitely raised expectations stifling (Liz Phair is a great example of this), it’s also possible that once an artist recovered from the immediate shock of having to follow up a once-in-the-lifetime success, they would be able to shrug off the expectations and simply return to making music without the pressure of producing another heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Perhaps the critics and commentators, so accustomed to conventional narratives of ambition and artistic hubris, would be unable to properly comprehend an artist who purposefully chose to turn their back on creating massively profound statements in favor of more humble, but no less satisfying achievements. Perhaps the critics might even turn on said artist, accusing him of betraying his talent, or his fans. There is nothing quite so ugly as a critic whose sense of entitlement has been violated.

Well, The Outsider isn’t a monumental classic for the ages, but it is a pretty good album. In places it seems methodically designed to stymie the expectations of anyone expecting a repeat of Endtroducing… or even The Private Press (crouching in its predecessor’s shadow, Shadow’s sophomore release remains criminally underrated). At least for the time being, Shadow seems content with more manageable goals. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and everyone who ever loved Shadow’s music owes it to themselves to judge The Outsider on its own merits.

As you may have heard, there’s some rap on The Outsider. This comes as a surprise to the five people who didn’t understand that Shadow was serious about his love for hip-hop, and not just in the slightly emaciated, definitely deracinated manner of white backpackers and Def Jux-rockers across the nation. There’s always been a large political element to the independent hip-hop scene, predicated as it is on the disavowal of commercial temptations and the excesses of gangsta rap. To those who stack their DJ Shadow CDs next to Radiohead and El-P, seeing Shadow load his disc with a handful of hyphy tracks might seem positively perverse. But hyphy is a Northern California phenomenon, born in Vallejo and Oakland. Shadow hails from Davis, just next to Sacramento and within spitting distance of the Bay Area hip-hop scene — it makes perfect sense that he would want to show his school colors. And there is no arguing that tracks like “3 Freaks” (with Keak Da Sneak and Turf Talk) and “Keep Em Close” (featuring Nump) are pretty awesome examples of contemporary hip-hop production. “Turf Dancing” is actually designed to accompany the dance of the same name, a Bay Area phenomenon that looks poised to be the next “snap” dance. So, yeah, if it offends your delicate sensibilities to hear David Banner proclaim “DJ Shadow up in this motherfucker”, perhaps you’d best stick with that new Sigur Ros disc. For his part, Shadow sounds like he’s having a lot of fun.

If it sounds like I’m defensive, well, almost every review of the album I’ve seen has failed to see that this new paradigm fits Shadow rather well. As much as I liked The Private Press, it definitely suffered from the fact that it was the hotly anticipated follow-up to a seminal debut album. Shadow seems a lot looser here, happy to not be stuck in the same ominous / epic mode that defined his previous work. The emotion is a bit rawer, a bit less contemplative. The political one-two punch of “Seein’ Thangs” (with Banner’s angry rapping) and “Broken Levee Blues” is probably the best musical statement yet on the subject of Hurricane Katrina. The former track deals with outrage and anger, the latter with a more measured and conscientious melancholy. Understanding that both emotions have been felt in equal measure, while simultaneously working to untangle the mixed emotions that have undercut every significant artistic response, Shadow manages the rare feat of producing a musical statement that feels both honest and well-conceived — not exactly the work of an artist in a downward spiral.

The album’s centerpiece is undoubtedly “Backstage Girl”, a bluesy rocker built around Phonte Coleman’s sly spoken-word storytelling. Anyone who thinks Shadow has fallen off should listen to this exquisitely structured track — it’s the kind of track I simply can’t imagine anyone else ever producing, packed with both dirty funk and an offhand, casually epic feeling that recalls the best vintage Motown (imagine “Standing In the Shadows of Love”, if the Four Tops had been backed by the J.B.’s and had Saul Williams as a guest MC). It’s what the Roots would sound like if the Roots ever kicked as much ass in reality as they do in theory. (All you true school hedz can write angry letters about that last sentence if you wish, but chances are I’ll ignore them.)

The second half of the album might seem more familiar to longtime Shadow fans, although there is still something far more concise in the songwriting. It’s an established fact that Shadow is a huge Radiohead fan, and you wouldn’t be wrong in detecting an influence there. But just because a track like “The Tiger” betrays more of a conventional alt rock leaning does not mean it is bad — on the contrary, considering all the bands that have been trying to ride Radiohead’s coattails this past decade, it’s notable that Shadow brings a refreshingly bass-heavy Mancunian feel to a normally ascetic mode. From hyphy to classic-era Primal Scream, Shadow proves himself to be a sonic chameleon par excellence.

But the question that remains left to be answered is whether or not it is enough for him merely to be a chameleon. It would be easy to make the argument that merely producing an UNKLE-ish ballad like “Erase You” is such an elementary accomplishment for the man who wrote “Midnight in a Perfect World” that the achievement is worthy of scorn. Sure, they might say, “This Time” might be a dead-on reconstruction of lost seventies rare groove, but what’s the point when you know he’s capable of “so much more”? Isn’t it just like playing with one hand behind your back, the equivalent of Radiohead producing an album of Smiths covers? I think the lyrics for “This Time” go a long way toward shedding some light on the dilemma:

In the beginning, well, I didn’t know,

As time passed on, still didn’t know,

But this time, this time I’m gonna try it my way,

I’m gonna live life my way.

He’s doing what he wants to do, producing the music that he wants to make. The vocal on “This Time” is credited to “Unknown”, but I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that it might not be some unknown soul vocalist, but Davis himself, showing defiance against the critics and fans who have circumscribed his career based on early successes. I could be totally 100% wrong, but it sounds a little bit like Davis. It’d be a fitting middle-finger to anyone who felt like dismissing The Outsider based on a preconceived notion of what a DJ Shadow album should sound like.

So yeah, this is a pretty good album. I suspect that it will be one of those albums that people might dismiss today but will go back to in six months or six years, in the process rediscovering a treasure trove of interesting music. It is very consciously not a concept album of any kind — there’s little progression or thematic cohesion. But I think that trying to focus more on the structure and craft of individual songs in disparate genres has freed Shadow. Whatever he does next will probably still be compared to Endtroducing…, but he’s made it quite clear that he just doesn’t care anymore.

RATING 7 / 10