uck ‘em, they’ll figure it out,” Josh Davis tells URB. The “‘em” are the kids who will get excited about his Bentley-shaking single, “3 Freaks,” and run to their Best Buy/Target/Wal-Mart to buy DJ Shadow’s latest joint, The Outsider. When asked about their possible bewilderment resulting from popping it in and subsequently hearing Mexican soap opera soundtracks and some bum who sounds like that guy in Coldplay, our man replies “Fuck ‘em.”
And why not? Davis hardly has anything to prove. With his debut, Endtroducing, Davis unleashed a classic: translating discarded and forgotten soul, funk, breakbeats, hip-hop, and jazz vinyl into 21st century hip-hop symphonies. The Private Press even upped the ante—although it wasn’t quite as cohesive of an album, it showcased Shadow’s ability to move from genre to genre like any good producer should.
So when Josh Davis says “Fuck ‘em,” we almost agree. Almost. That’s because he’s saying fuck you not only to new fans with The Outsider, but also to old ones.
Of course you wouldn’t know it from the opener, “Outsider (Intro),” which almost comes off as a sneering joke at those that think his shtick is dead. For two long minutes, a narrator delivers a tale about a mythical “outsider” who survives while society collapses around him. It’s vintage Shadow. Preemptive Strike Shadow. The following, “This Time (I'm Gonna Try It My Way),” continues in this vein—it’s a neon-lit soul band that tells the world that Davis is his own man. “Memories are passing like a shadow haunting me…this time I’m going to try it my way,” the preacher sings. His way? The hyphy way.
Yes, Davis is now trying to immerse himself in the bleeding edge of the arising “hyphy” movement (think SF Bay Area crunk). Unfortunately, many of his hyphy cuts on The Outsider are too forgettable to be entertaining. Just staple an ominous piano melody or a buzzing synth line to a thudding drum machine and there you go. “Keep ‘Em Close” and “Turf Dancing” are the guiltiest suspects. There are specks of gold in the mire, though—on “Seein Thangs,” David Banner describes the ghosts of the South emerging from the flooded ruins of New Orleans where “your ‘hood is like a modern slave ship” and “cotton grows up from the concrete.” The Foreign Exchange’s Phonte shares an amusing cautionary tale about cursed groupies from MySpace on the decidedly non-hyphy “Backstage Girl,” while the great Q-Tip and Lateef the Truth Speaker shine in the crisp, guitar-brightened “Enuff.”
But even with these rappers adding bright spots, the rest of The Outsider is in shambles. Great ideas abound—it’s just that they stumble on their face. The speed-metal percussion bludgeon in “Artifact” could have broken a few necks if it wasn’t for that neutered guitar riff that gasps along like a broken pacemaker. “Triplicate / Something Happened That Day” has a strong beginning, but the melodrama gradually rises to a scream. “The Tiger” is a decent mash of middle-eastern percussion and grouchy guitar riffs but still lacks evocative pull, while “What Have I Done” always makes me do two things—chuckle a few times and then turn off the stereo. As for the Coldplay-karaoke ballads “Erase You” and “You Made It” (starring Chris Martin-soundalike Chris James), well…the less said the better.
There is one hope amid the wreckage. “Broken Levee Blues” is a simple electric blues duet that shines across the flooded streets of New Orleans. The guitar licks simultaneously express relief (for being alive) and anxiety (for not being rescued for days). The song conveys emotions stronger and more clearly than anywhere else on the record.
It’s tough to understand where Davis is coming from on The Outsider. The hyphy cuts may gain Davis more fans who have never heard his work. But there is also the possibility that many of his longtime fans will reply “fuck him, he’ll figure it out.” Count me as one of the latter.
Reviewed by: Cameron Macdonald
Reviewed on: 2006-09-18