And, though the shadow of a sigh
May tremble through the story...
It shall not touch, with breath of bale,
The pleasance of our fairy-tale.
~Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
Oh, he's in for it now.
Anticipation for DJ Shadow's long-awaited album The Outsider has been tinted with trepidation. Four years -- practically a generation by modern pop standards -- have passed since the undie darling's last proper record, The Private Press. Advance notice has indicated a pointed departure, one toward the latest land of hype: hyphy. The hesitation is understandable considering the industry adage for the established artist: If it ain't broke, milk it. For Shadow to reach out to the "in" sound from right now, he runs a divisive risk of driving fans into a frenzy or away.
In truth, nothing has changed. As he alluded in his recent XXL interview, the spectrum of his writing has been on the wall the entire time -- remember who praised James Brown as "the godfather of modern music," then sprinkled psych-folk troubadour Shawn Phillips and pop maven Björk in his stew? Certainly, the bulk of his branding has favored the leftfield and non-commercial: deep funk on 45s and adolescent soul practically beg for a cultish clutch by collector nerds. However, recent releases such as the crunk-mash-up-meets-breezy-guitar mix on Funky Skunk have reinforced the extent of his tastes. In this manner, The Outsider is another stroll through anything that catches Josh Davis's fancy -- from what the streets are watching to what kids across the world are watching on the tube.
On a superficial level, The Outsider sounds like Shadow's take on fill-in-the-blank genre. The album is front-loaded with slappers that find him goin' dumb with the best (both the long-leaked "3 Freaks" and tweak by Droop-E appear here) before turning navel-ward to emotive guitar pop ("You Made It"). In between, he turns back time to touch base with neo-hippie spoken word ("What Have I Done") and Dead Boys-like punk ("Artifact"). While vocal presence from a diverse cast (from Bay stalwarts E-40 and Keak da Sneak to sad-bloke vocalist Chris James to familiar faces Q-Tip and Lateef) on the majority of the tracks pulls attention from the host and makes the record sound manic, Shadow reigns in the attention by virtue of his adept production. Backpack brethren will still give daps to "Backstage Girl," a simple ass tale from Little Brother's Phonte over hard-knock breaks, while the Federation collabo "Turf Dancing" winds through the club, making cabs rumble, knees buckle and 'tay's girl pray at the left coast's altar. The best characterization then of The Outsider is a test to DJ Shadow, as opposed to another framework. On previous albums, he pushed the limits of a culture (hip-hop on Endtroducing) or a technique (sampling on Private Press). On The Outsider, he comes full circle to push the limits of his self; where "Stem" was a reminder that not even Public Enemy got that down with Anthrax, "Artifact" is more Shadow fucking with his drums.
The Outsider shouldn't be framed as the second coming of a masterpiece but as a stepping-stone. Keep in mind that Shadow is in the distinct position of having a sixteen-year career lionized and reduced to output from his first five or six years -- talk about one-hit wonder. If anything, it's high time for him to work through his identity. So, fanboys and girls, calm the eff down: It's still DJ Shadow.
Label: http://new.umusic.com/"3 Freaks" audio/video
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