If you’re a fan of DJ Shadow, or more specifically, DJ Shadow’s music up to this point, then it’s very possible that you’re not going to like this album at first. In fact, it has to be said that you might actually really hate it. The Outsider isn’t just a musical about turn; it’s an about turn in so many different directions that it’s a total shock.
We had heard the circulating rumours and the disbelief, but until we heard it for ourselves we chose to remain optimistic. Most importantly, if anyone could be trusted to pursue a new musical direction, then surely it would be DJ Shadow. But in the end, while there is still a lot to appreciate here, he really asks a lot of his audience, and this time, for us anyway, the hip-hop is arguably the weakest aspect of the album. Furthermore, we literally weren’t entirely sure if we were listening to the right album at first – it really is that much of a surprise.
So, what is The Outsider all about? Well, to be honest we’re still not sure, but we know that it contains a lot of Bay Area style rap, the ‘Hyphy’ sound (pronounced HIFEE), to be precise. This is where Shadow has been for the last few years, so it’s no surprise that he’s picked up some of the sounds; we just never expected for him to be using all of the sounds, for so much of the album.
Characterised by gritty, booming rhythms, Hyphy is very aggressive, with lyrics often delivered in a similarly distorted manner. And frankly, even though we consider ourselves fairly open-minded, and enjoy several different kinds of hip-hop and rap, we just can’t pretend to like it. 3 Freaks (the first single from the album), featuring Keak de Sneak and Turf Talk, just seems so repetitive and insipid as to be virtually unlistenable after a few tries. Seein’ Thangs (featuring David Banner) is slower and darker, a kind of horror rap, and to be honest we’ve heard enough motherf*&%@#s and n&%@as in two-dimensional raps to last us a lifetime.
It’s as if the intelligent lyricism that we’ve enjoyed over the last few years in hip-hop has simply passed Shadow and his collaborators by, but that’s extremely hard to believe. And then there’s the male bravado (read borderline sexism) in the blues/rock/rap number called Backstage Girl (featuring Phonte Coleman). “I knew what time it was as soon as I saw her. As soon as she smiled I could tell what her favourite position was. And I damn sure gave it too her”. Okay, so we know that these attitudes are rife in rap, and rap video in particular, but do we expect to hear them on a DJ Shadow album? Indeed, there are a number of occasions playing The Outsider where you’ll wonder if you’d be listening to this at all if it wasn’t for the fact that Shadow is written on the label.
Alright, so we’re fully prepared to admit that we don’t really ‘get’ the Bay Area sound, so let’s take that as read and move on. What is there to like on The Outsider? Well, the first proper track on the album, This Time (I’m Gonna Try It My Way), is a superb soul number for starters. It still doesn’t sound much like DJ Shadow, but it does sound great, and is sure to be one of the tracks you keep returning to.
Triplicate/Something Happened That Day is a superb instrumental, a kind of spaghetti western soundtrack from a hip-hop perspective (even though there’s no beat), and is perhaps most recognisable as the Shadow of old. Artefact is also brilliantly brooding in the centre, if you can get through the syncopated rapid beats that frame it.
Erase You is quite interesting, but also sounds pretty much exactly like Kid A/Amnesiac era Radiohead, especially with Chris James’ falsetto vocal doing a brilliant Thom Yorke impression. But why would we listen to this and not just put some Radiohead on? (Of course Radiohead were influenced by DJ Shadow in the first place, but this really does sound like an imitation of, not something inspired by.)
Enuff (featuring Q-Tip and Lateef) is the latest single, and while it’s quite inoffensive and catchy on first listen, you suddenly realise that it’s virtually a chart dance track, and wouldn’t sound out of place on a Justin Timberlake album. Q-Tip doesn’t get chance to do a great rhyme, and once you’ve heard the vacuous lyrics about clubs and dancefloors, even bumpin’ ‘n’ grindin’ (!), the chances are you won’t be going back to it.
How to conclude? Well really we’ve said it all, and made our own feelings clear, but believe us it was difficult to say it. We hate the idea that an artist should be forever pigeonholed, with every new venture analysed against the originality/brilliance of their earlier work, and we acknowledge that maybe Shadow needed to do this to truly break from his past, and his obsessive fans.
It’s just that The Outsider feels too random and open-ended to appeal enough to any one type of audience. How many folk fans really want to listen to aggressive rap, and vice versa? So take what you want to take from it; just don’t expect to be able to take it all. And be prepared to return to Entroducing, The Private Press and Pre-Emptive Strike just to check you hadn’t imagined just how brilliant they were.
The Outsider (2006)
Genre: Hiphy, Rap, Soul, Rock
Record Label: Island