Looking from the outside in at DJ Shadow's third studio album ‘The Outsider’ is no simple task given how emphatically different its content and style is from previous releases ‘Endtroducing…’ and ‘The Private Press’ - both critically acclaimed by musicians and critics alike.
The latter two albums made a massive mark in the world of trip-hop and revealed the heights that can be scaled when a master of sampling plies his trade. Yet ‘The Outsider’ must be looked at from an alternative perspective, and as a stand-alone body of work: it is neither groundbreaking nor likely to shape the next generation of DJs and producers.
The 18-track album is a tough listen at times. From the 'to be skipped forevermore' intro track that rambles on for over two minutes to the remix of ‘3 Freaks’ which closes proceedings, ‘The Outsider’ has no discernable flow: It’s doomed to being played for three or four songs at a time (it does have its ups) rather than listened to in its entirety. God bless the person who invented the program function on stereos.
After the intro, ‘This Time (I'm Gonna Try It My Way)’ kicks off the journey in an inoffensive manner. The track uses routine samples, it’s hardly earth-shattering, and its failure to break new musical ground - something Shadow has always been famous for - is an appropriate segue for the next slab of music on ‘The Outsider’.
There has been a lot said about the 'hyphy' sound that Shadow unashamedly pushes on this album (hyphy – a combination of 'hyper' and 'fly' - is a lifestyle, a culture and a music from the streets of Oakland) and it is represented for better or worse on ‘3 Freaks’, ‘Turf Dancing’, ‘Keep Em Close’, ‘Dats My Part’ and ‘Seein’ Thangs’. Bay Area rappers E-40 (‘Dats My Part’), The Federation (‘Turf Dancing’), Turf Talk, Keak Da Sneak (‘3 Freaks’) and Nump (‘Keep Em Close’) feature, and their oft-aggressive vocals banish Shadow's production to the backseat of the creative car.
The oft-maligned single ‘3 Freaks’ - it has been speculated that Turf Talk was the major influence on Shadow opting to release the track after Shadow had initially expressed reservations - is a grower. It might sound like trash the first time you hear it, but it does get better with each run; yet in the end, middle-of-the-road is all that it amounts to. Damning is the fact that some Shadow fans have told Resident Advisor that hearing ‘3 Freaks’ on the airwaves has stopped them from listening to - let alone buying – ‘The Outsider’ in full.
On ‘Turf Dancing’, Shadow's influence (it is his album I guess) is noticeable in the distance behind The Federation and Animaniak’s screams down the mic, but as the lyrics are belted out, they take with them a touch of Shadow's credibility with every line: "We don't listen, we don't listen, we don't listen …" You don't say!?
Some might be tempted to write off the album as a vehicle for rappers and low-profile UK vocalists (read here Chris James), but there are some high points: If you don’t want to pay homage to the hyphy-nators, fast forward to ‘Broken Levee Blues’: its Hendrix-esque guitar riffs will help to dissolve the bitter aftertaste of the hyphy, while ‘Backstage Girl’ (featuring Phonte Coleman) has a narrative that fuses well with the beats and sampling that are not dissimilar to a Roots offering. Elsewhere ‘Triplicate’ takes the album down a notch, but would be a welcome addition to any movie soundtrack, such is its inherent beauty. Yet that this track is on the same album as the Mr. Bungle-like frantic and punky opening to ‘Artifact’ only serves to underscore a point: ‘The Outsider’ jumps around the musical genres far too much.
Sergio Pizzorno and his former Kasabian guitarist/keyboardist Christopher Karloff play their parts in ‘The Tiger’, and it gets the thumbs up. This is actually one of the better songs on the album: its indie rock leanings are miles away from the treble of freaks let loose upon the listener earlier on. Leeds vocalist Chris James lends his voice to both ‘Erase You’ - which utilises some familiar Shadow drum beats - and ‘Made It’, which has an upbeat rock melody that could easily be mistaken for a Coldplay number. Treat that comparison as you will.
‘Enuff’ featuring Q-Tip and Lateef The Truth Speaker supplies the female vocals on the album, and is dreamy enough (did I type dreamy or dreary?), before Shadow wraps the album up with more hyphy: ‘Dats My Part’ and a remix of ‘3 Freaks’ end a collaboration that you’d never have believed Shadow was associated with if it wasn't actually so.
While no-one can question Shadow’s guts at showcasing the gangster rap sound he has enjoyed all his life, ‘The Outsider’ is an average composition at most. Perhaps Davis, famous for mashing the samples of others for so long, is promoting the many fringe talents here to give something back to the music. One thing is for certain: Turf Talk certainly wasn't arguing when Shadow paid his, and the other rappers', way around Europe on a recent tour. But money can't buy you love.
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