The secret is out. Reviews thus far for DJ Shadow’s The Outsider have not been positive. After dealing with online backlash from a dedicated, albeit confused fanbase, a defensive Shadow issued the following statement on his website: “Repeat Endtroducing over and over again? That was never, ever in the game plan. Fuck that. So I think it’s time for certain fans to decide if they are fans of the album, or the artist.”
So what is the big controversy over this record? Well, like with The Private Press, Shadow has tried some different styles not seen in his previous works. However, this time the changes are drastic; much unlike the subtle evolution in sound between, say, Endtroducing and UNKLE. By now you’ve heard it – Shadow’s gone hyphy.
What do you want? He’s from The Bay Area, where the current “hyphy movement” is taking the district by storm, and slowly expanding on a national level. That being said, a lot of the stars of the movement appear here, such as E-40, Keak Da Sneak, Turf Talk, Mistah Fab, Droop-E, The Federation, and Animaniaks.
You wouldn’t know he was taking things in this direction from the album’s intro, however, or the excellent “This Time (I’m Gonna Try It My Way)”, which treads the line between dug-up vinyl gem and studio produced rare groove retrospective. Here, the “unknown” vocalist – meant to symbolize Shadow – suggests exactly what the song title says, setting the listener up for something different.
And different it is. Shadow doesn’t really pull any punches, he goes completely dumb (and that is meant as a compliment) for the first half of the record, proving to himself and the rest of the world that he can make commercially viable hip-hop records. “3 Freaks” is an unapologetic hyphy anthem, which finds Keak Da Sneak and Turf Talk attacking Shadow’s bouncy funk with relentless stupidity (again, a compliment), and perhaps one of the most brilliantly ignorant lines in recent memory. “Rock wit’ it or not / If I can’t get in the club / the club in the parking lot!” “Turf Dancing” – when broken down to it’s very last compound – is a well-produced track that almost channels Newcleus’ “Wikki Wikki”, but loses the listener as it progressively devolves (“devolves” meant in the most flattering way possible). By the time “Keep ‘Em Close” comes in, with Nump’s rushed, um, “flow”, the long-time Shadow fan is left clueless (with “clueless” not being used in a complementary context here). And while David Banner’s “Seein’ Thangs” consciously touches upon the Hurricane Katrina disaster, unfortunately Banner’s angry diatribe is too easily mistaken for local foolishness that preceded it. But “Broken Levee Blues” makes up for it.
Yet here is where the album gets weird. The bluesy and soulful “Backstage Girl” bridges the gap between the two sides of the album, as Little Brother’s Phonte Coleman helps redeem Shadow in the eyes of his fans, after the first half of the record. Further solace is found sprinkled in a few instrumental tracks (“Artifact” and “Triplicate”, plus “Triplicate Part 3″ on the UK version) From here on out, Shadow delves into an UNKLE-esque rock portion of the album, delivering much better results and much more pleasing material for the longtime fans. The moody “The Tiger” teams Shadow up with buzz-rockers Kasabian for excellent results. The pair of Chris James collaborations both fare well, yet salty critics still mad about the first half of the record will undoubtedly pan the vocalist for shamelessly adopting styles from both Radiohead (“Erase You”) and Coldplay (“You Made It”) almost in the same breath. But hey, it works.
But it doesn’t all work together. There’s no “I” in “team” and no “team” in The Outsider. Riddle me this: What will the average Bay Area hyphy idiot (“idiot” meant as a term of endearment) get out of any of the heavily musical collaborations with any of three Chris’s (Karloff, James, or Carter). For that matter, what will the snooty British critic get out of “Turf Dancing” - Shadow’s managed to piss everyone off with this one.
As to why he decided to make such a schizophrenic, alienating record is beyond us, as a double album, or even two separate albums would have made much more sense. The Outsider has a few brushes with greatness, but the sums of its parts add up to disappointment. Easy Shadow, we still love you, but to be fair, a lot of us have decided that we just aren’t fans of The Outsider.
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