DJ Shadow
"The Outsider"

(Universal Motown 2006)DJ Shadow - The Outsider

Since the early 90s, DJ Shadow has been quietly exerting a major influence on the development of "alternative" hip-hop. Most famous for his solo debut "Endtroducing…," an instrumental symphony of dusty drum loops, dirty bass lines, and echoing organs that became the official hipster soundtrack for 1996, Shadow has also produced for some of the biggest names in hip-hop's underground, including Dr. Octagon and Blackalicious. But instead of advancing to the next level of the game, chasing bigger paychecks producing for bigger-name artists, Shadow has remained loyal to his own creative muse, even if that means remaining outside the spotlight. That he has remained obscure yet uncompromised is apparently a point of pride for Shadow, given the title of his third solo LP: "The Outsider."

DJ Shadow uses his outsider status as a license to spin whatever he feels like spinning: commercial considerations, his own fans' expectations, and hip-hop itself be damned. Where "Endtroducing..." and its follow-up "The Private Press" were tightly focused albums that played like single, multi-song compositions, "The Outsider" is a messy, motley grab-bag that reverses musical direction every two or three songs. With radio-ready beats and chant-along hooks, cuts like "Turf Dancing" and "Keep Em Close" take a stab at commercial hip-hop, while rock songs like "The Tiger," "Erase You," and "You Made It" owe more to Radiohead than to rap. "3 Freaks" and "Dats My Part" seek to out-weird the current generation of experimental indie-rappers (Anti-Pop Consortium, Subtle), whilst "What Have I Done" features little besides a sad-sounding singer-songwriter and her piano. The fact that nearly every one of these tracks features a completely different set of guest vocalists only adds to the feeling that you're listening not to a DJ Shadow mix but rather to DJ Shadow's iPod on "shuffle."

Yes, it's impressive that DJ Shadow can produce in so many different paradigms, but does it all make for an album worth listening to? Sort of. The songs on "The Outsider" are all so different, and the guest stars so diverse, that it's unlikely you'll ever want to hear all of them back to back: as with an iPod on shuffle, you'll probably find yourself riding the fast-forward button until you find a track that suits your mood. The other problem is that, while Shadow's production is uniformly excellent, guest rappers and singers are seldom willing to bust out their top-shelf material for a cameo on someone else's album. With the notable exception of Phonte Coleman on the stupid-but-charming rap ballad "Backstage Girl," the vocalists are mostly just there, filling space in Shadow's arrangements.

As an album, "The Outsider" can fairly be called a jack of all styles, master of none. Those looking for a "DJ Shadow album" will find some, but not much, of his signature sound in the mix. Aficionados of alternative/indie hip-hop will find many interesting musical ideas strewn throughout the album, yet nothing fully developed enough to rival Blackalicious or Gnarls Barkley. As for mainstream hip-hop fans... forget it.

Such is the risk when a DJ plays whatever they feel like playing, without regard for what the crowd wants to hear. DJ Shadow probably knows that this album's appeal will be limited, yet it's doubtful that he cares. After all, what's the fun of being an outsider if you start giving a damn what anyone else thinks?

C

buy it!