A new DJ Shadow album is quite an event, The Outsider being just his third since he captivated the world with Entroducing in 1996. Where that record frequently amazed with its innovative approach to sampling and texture, The Outsider presents a very different side to its author.
Recent events in his life, described by the beatsmith as “several run-ins with mortality”, have taken their toll on his musical personality. The knock-on effect has been a decision to venture back to where it all started, with the directness of rap and hip hop. So it’s out with the experimental samples, and, for the first half of the record at least, in with upfront vocals and stripped down grooves.
With a much leaner sound at his disposal Davis gets straight down to business, though the lengthy opening definition of an outsider prompts immediate worries that this might be a self-indulgent sprawl. Thankfully this proves not to be the case, as the warmly soulfulThis Time (I’m Gonna Try It My Way) serves as a prelude before the guest rappers get down to action.
There’s enough guests for a football squad on this album. Even in the first two rap tracks the rhythmically jerky 3 Freaks and the cliché-ridden Turf Dancing feature a multitude of voices, upfront and aggressive. It’s hip hop bluster without any subtlety, almost too conscious of being opposite to its maker’s past. Later on the single Enuff also strips down to simple chords and beat, supporting an easier going chorus from Q-Tip and Lateef The Truth Speaker.
And then, without warning, things change dramatically. The catalyst for this is the frantic instrumental Artifact, a remnant of a collaboration with Rage Against The Machine‘s Zack De LaRocha, where a gunfire drum solo seems to purge all the cutting edges of the first half. Musically spent, Davis can then concentrate on bringing a few nuances back to his style.
As a consequence the second half is a different story. The sprawling Backstage Girl starts this as along story of temptation and groupies, its nagging guitar riff returning to your head the second the album is over. It’s a moving tale of weakness, and hangs over the following Triplicate, where gently lilting harp arpeggios tug regretfully at the heartstrings.
Once again Davis’ musical versatility is evident, whether supplying vehicles for the ensemble rap bluster of the early tracks or an unexpectedly Indian slant to The Tiger, featuring Kasabian‘s Serge Pizzorno and Chris Karloff. More effective is Stateless singer Chris James, who bends his vocal around the weirdness of Erase You and the soft centred You Made It.
This is a fascinating record that will initially bewilder, but rewards repeated listens. DJ Shadow may have disappointed some with this new directness, but The Outsider has plenty to say, and is a strongly communicative listen.