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October 9, 2006
By now you have probably heard the hype (or lack thereof) surrounding The Outsider, the new album from Josh Davis, who is better known to the world as DJ Shadow. Some people are pissed because this is Shadow's "Hyphy album". Others are pissed because this is Shadow's "Crunk album". Some are even pissed because this is a Coldplay-esque, Brit-pop album. Calling this record "scattered" is an understatement but that doesn't mean that this is a bad collection of songs. There are moments on The Outsider - which this critic would rate a 7 out of 10 - that transcend mere competence and enter into the realm of brilliant. Nothing here touches Shadow's masterwork Endtroducing but then again very few albums, by any artist, have come close to matching that legendary record's genius or beauty. What The Outsider proves is that it is time to finally put thoughts of another Endtroducing to rest. Shadow has moved on; why can't the rest of us?

I spoke with Shadow back in August and we talked about everything from his reverence for Hyphy to his motivation for incorporating such a diverse group of genres on his new album. The album features guest artists ranging from E-40 to Charalambides' Christina Carter. Given the unexpected line-up I asked Shadow what to expect from The Outsider, to which he replied, "I think the album is extremely diverse because that is where my head is at musically these days and I feel like in this iTunes mix tape world we live in, and the way record companies do albums, I feel like this is what I represent and it's all over the place and that's got to make sense to somebody." He went on to say that "a lot of people were like: 'well why don't you just do a rap album and do a rock album later?' and my response is: 'I can handle it and that other people can handle it too.'"

The Outsider begins with a British voice speaking a monologue about governmental corruption, societal collapse and absolute power. The narrator's voice resembles John Hurt who played a Fascist political leader in V for Vendetta. In the monologue "The Outsider" turns out to be a hero who fights against corruption and dominance by becoming a legend the people can draw inspiration from. Unfortunately a discussion of organized resistance is an ironic way to begin such a chaotic album.

The chaos begins immediately following the intro. "This Time", a funky, wah guitar, track with some shitty lyrics. Imagine Bill Withers or Bobby Womack, minus the soul and with lyrics penned by an eighth grader. Despite the lyrical shortcomings, the message is loud and clear during the chorus: "This time I'm gonna try it my way". Shadow knows that some listeners and fans will hate this record but he is no longer willing to take that into consideration. This is his album, this is where his head is at and this is the music he wants to make.

Next up are "Three Freaks" and "Turf Dancing". These two Hyphy tracks highlight Shadow's intimate understanding of the Bay Area's contribution to Hip Hop. Keek Da Sneak and Turf Talk tear through verses laden with uniquely pronounced words like "natin" (nothing). Shadow doesn't do too much here to stray from the traditional Hyphy sound. The MCs are talented and the funk-laden bounce of these tracks is catchy, but mostly these songs will blend in with about any other popular "Hyphy" track.

The first moment of greatness on The Outsider comes with Nump's morality tale "Keep 'Em Close" and continues with David Banner's unbelievably intense "Seein' Thangs". These two tracks feature MCs at the top of their game and layered production by Shadow that is simultaneously homage to the Hyphy/Crunk genres and cutting edge production/turntablism. Nump begins "Keep 'Em Close" by acknowledging pressure: "Y'all don't know/ It feel like the galaxy on my shoulders." He goes on to advise listeners on the finer points on robbery: "Keep your friends close/ But those you want to rob…/ Keep them closer." The morality tale about an over confident thief getting his comeuppance is delivered in Numps' perfect cadence which flows beautifully over Shadow's corny electric piano track. "Seein Thangs" rides in on a synthesized wave, accompanied by rapid-fire Crunk beats. David Banner's hurricane flow demands answers: "Why George Bush ain't in jail for stealin' them votes?/ Why the CIA ain't closed for pushin' that dope?" Banner, who literally sent his tour bus to rescue Katrina victims, has unlimited paranoia and unchecked rage when speaking on the disaster. Shadow's seething keyboards, and pounding 808, fuel Banner's fire to the point of inferno. Shadow spoke at length about David Banner and the urgency of that particular sound: "David Banner and Lil' John, to me, were great and I remember vividly driving around the South in 2002 and hearing this "Crunk" throughout the South and just thinking this was the future, where everything is headed, and sure enough, the next summer, Lil' John really broke and so did Banner with his Mississippi album... Anyway, that was a long way of saying I suppose to some people it may seem surprising but to me it is just a really accurate reflection of where my head is at musically right now... The thing with David Banner, he had a group called Crooked Letters and it was cool but it wasn't anything mind blowing and he came into his own sometime later."

The Eddie Hazel influenced, "Broken Levee Blues" and the heavily percussive "Artifact" fill time as all instrumental, guitar heavy, tracks. The blues rock continues with Phonte Coleman's "Backstage Girl" - yet another morality tale, this one concerning Phonte and his problem with groupies. Te's conclusion: "I gotta stop fucking with these hoes on Myspace, Dog." The track is tight and clocking in at over seven minutes, adding to it's Roots-like feel.

Most of the remaining tracks exist in nebulous mediocrity. Most of these sounds have been heard from Shadow before and were originally better done. "Triplicate" is a David Axelrod inspired symphonic piece. The pounding jungle drums of "The Tiger" will remind UNKLE fans of Shadow's work with The Verve's Richard Ashcroft. The sweet pop fluff of "Erase You" and "You Made It" feature vocals by Brit-popper Chris James who sounds quite similar to Chris Martin from Coldplay. "What have I Done" - a craptastic track, featuring vocals by Christina Carter, sounds like Paris Hilton reading poetry written by a crystal worshiper. Can anyone say Wyndham Hill? "Enuff" features Q-Tip returning to the mic. It is nice to hear Tip rapping again but his rhymes are loaded with cliché and little to no substance. "Enuff" is uninspired and, aside from a few turntable flourishes by Shadow, the song is unmemorable if not downright boring. Fortunately Shadow returns with to form with a huge assist from E-40 on the album's final track.

"Dats My Point" is a blazing Hyphy track with Shadow, and guest MC E-40, in top form. For two verses E-40 rhymes over a brilliant circus-like track by Shadow. "Dats My Point" shows two masters of their craft, hard at work, in an attempt to one up the other.

So, what was it was like working with the reigning king of Hyphy? "E-40 is the type of artist that I would never call a "Hyphy" artist per se, because he's been around for so long and he has reflected so many years of hip-hop," Shadow clarified. "He's been making records for eighteen years now. He really has supported Rick Rock who I think is the main person responsible for the Hyphy sound musically and I'd say that E-40, along with Mac Dre, have supplied most of the fuel to the lyrical fire. Undeniably they both have represented a huge chunk of the inspiration for that other people rap about. As far as working with him, it was a real honor and the whole reason I wanted him on the record was because, in the Bay, he's pretty much the "Tall Man" - especially since Mac Dre was unfortunately murdered a couple of years ago. E-40 makes everything official and it's sort of like paying respects to the main dude in the Bay... it's not that I was really absorbing E-40's albums in the mid to late '90s. I was into him really early on when the first Click album came out and I remember using his very first 12" inch in '88, when he was in a group called MVP, but it's funny, where I am at musically and where rap is at... it's like waveforms - sometimes they cross and sometimes they don't. I know that starting around 2002 the music that was coming out of the bay just seemed to really make sense to me and sound really exciting and unlike anything that I had heard in hip-hop for a really long time. We recorded the vocals at his house and it was really rare to get two verses out of E-40 so I was really happy about that."

The Outsider is an interesting milestone in DJ Shadow's career. The results are more like a mix tape one might make for friends - moments of massively appealing pop intermixed with some less interesting but nonetheless tolerable songs. This is DJ Shadow The Producer and not so much DJ Shadow The Solo Artist. What's great about The Outsider is that there is literally something for everyone. No one, other than Shadow, will like it all but I can guarantee that at least one of these tracks will appeal to you. This is an album tailor-made to be sampled online where listeners can cherry pick their favorite tracks for download. After all, to paraphrase Shadow: "We live in an iTunes, mix tape world."

SEE ALSO: www.djshadow.com
SEE ALSO: www.mowax.com

--
Jon Burke
A contributing writer and a Chicago resident who will not be goaded by LAS’s editor into revealing any more details about his potentially sordid affairs.

See other articles by Jon Burke.

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