I don't know about you, but when I heard that DJ Shadow was going to be branching out, making as he says "credible" rock, rap, folk, etc., I was pretty excited. Endtroducing... happened over a decade ago, after all, and one can only listen to "The Number Song" so many times. I thought The Private Press was a great departure, incorporating other sounds and styles while still sounding like Shadow, and his various side projects (notably UNKLE) have been mostly inspired.
So to say I was anticipating this CD would be an understatement. After all, who wouldn't want to hear a premier producer like Shadow apply his studio wizardry to some new styles? He has a knack for taking different genres and redefining them - I couldn't wait to hear Shadow's take on punk or mainstream hip-hop.
What I didn't expect was an aimless, underwhelming album. "The Outsider" is diverse, yes, and when done right, a diverse record can be great. So what if one cut is folk and the next cut is hip-hop? Good music is good music. There is something to be said for cohesion, however, and (judging from his posts) Shadow seems to think that we'll just pick and choose the cuts we want for our Ipod playlists and junk the rest of the album. I don't know about you, but I still dig a good full-length record, and the best records don't have filler just for filler's sake. To me, this is just an excuse for lazy sequencing and weak production.
And make no mistake, many of these cuts are weak. "Backstage Girl" is a half-baked idea that goes nowhere, and "Turf Dancing" sounds like a manufacturer's demo for a sequencing program. "The Tiger" recalls UNKLE the way Sum 41 recalls The Descendents (that is, a rehashing that pales in comparison).
There are a handful of tracks that hit the mark. "Artifact" is proof that Shadow should produce a Bad Brains reunion, as he nails the perfect combination of grit and enthusiasm that punk requires (though the programmed drums are occasionally to rigid, which can be distracting). "3 Freaks," though essentially a one-trick-pony track (very unlike Shadow), nevertheless has a catchy hook and well-programmed beats. The MCing is a whole other story, however. Turf Talk and Keak da Sneak sound like they would get laughed off the stage at an open-mic night; lord only knows what they're doing on this record. On the other hand, Lateef and Q-Tip show what Shadow can do with some good MCs, making "Enuff" one of the best party tracks to come out in a long time.
But really, "The Outsider" comes down to 2 or 3 good tracks, a small handful of a-little-less-than-decent tracks, and a large handful of forgetable, ordinary tracks. And one thing Shadow has never been is "ordinary."
To me, the strangest thing about this album's release is Shadow's apparent contempt for his fans. Dude, I understand that you want a larger audience and all, but you're talking about your fans as if we're all losers just because we dug a record you made some years back. Now I can't speak for all Shadow fans, but I never wanted another Endtroducing... I love it when artists evolve in an exciting new direction. Like I said, good music is good music. But "The Outsider" is a lazy step backward. This is surprising and depressing coming from an artist whose work usually rewards repeat listens with hidden depths. It might sound alright at a frat party in-between cuts from Nelly and Paris Hilton, but it would pale in comparison on a mixtape next to TV on the Radio.
Hopefully, on his next record, Shadow will be able to tackle the broad, diverse sensibilities of "The Outsider" with some stronger material.