Own It or Disown It #34: DJ Shadow – The Outsider


There are the essential albums that need to be in everyone’s collection. There are the personal favorites, the ones that aren’t highly acclaimed but still get played every once in a while. And then there are the albums that you stick in the back of your collection because you want to forget that you spent money on them. “Own It or Disown It” gives the writer the opportunity to look at such discarded albums and determine if they are diamonds in the rough or if they deserve to be used as mini-frisbees.

This column had started as a write-up of DJ Shadow’s second album, The Private Press, but truth be told, I didn’t care enough about it to do a full write-up. It’s not a horrible album by any means, but when I’m listening to it, I wish I was listening to Endtroducing instead—an issue I don’t have with Shadow’s third album, The Outsider. The Private Press suffers from sounding far too similar to its marvelous predecessor, a problem I don’t have with The Outsider—it has its own set of problems. I know that The Outsider was welcomed with a mixed-to-negative reception upon its release, and I can’t say that much of it wasn’t deserved, but I honestly believe this is the second most interesting album Shadow has ever made.

Many critics argued that this album is horribly structured and spreads itself too thin with its sound, but I don’t think that’s the problem here—if anything, this album has great structure. It starts with the kind of trip-hop that folks have come to expect from Shadow before taking a massive turn with a set of hip-hop bangers. After a downbeat hip-hop number, the album gradually shifts to a series of pop songs that rely on composition, Shadow’s most celebrated trait. It ends with a pair of hip-hop songs featuring some of the biggest names in the business.

DJ Shadow – 3 Freaks from Mickey Finnegan on Vimeo.

Shadow had long been pegged as the guy who was at his best when he used the work of other artists, and The Outsider feels like a concentrated effort to dispel that line of thinking. It has the framework of a journey through many different disparate genres of music without losing cohesion or meaning (and I’m the first guy to complain about this sort of thing). On paper, The Outsider looks great, and the only thing that could hold it back would be the quality of the actual songs. You can guess where this is going.

The album starts well, but it hits a wall at its most crucial moment with the hyphy-inspired “3 Freaks” featuring Turf Talk and Keak Da Sneak. Shadow doesn’t do anything interesting with the beat until the song’s final minute, and neither rapper says anything of note. “Turf Dancing” features a marginally-better beat, if only because Shadow changes things up throughout, but between the Federation nor the Animaniaks (bleurgh), the only line that sticks out to me is when one of these kids rhymes “indy” with “plenty”, which is just as laughably uneventful as it sounds, and I don’t see how any rational person would not shut off “Keep Em Close” within its first ten seconds. The album truly suffers, though, after most of the rappers leave and Shadow tries to create pop songs.

I thought that “Six Days” was the best song on The Private Press, but “Triplicate/Something Happened That Day” and “What Have I Done” feel like retreads of that song, “The Tiger” would have been executed better by someone who knows a thing or two about Brazillian funk (probably), and “Erase You” sounds like a bad Radiohead cover band attempting to cover a bad Coldplay B-side. “You Made It” is the worst of the lot, channeling James Blunt by way of Radiohead. It just occurred to me that Thom Yorke could have enlisted Shadow’s help with The Eraser, and Yorke could have returned the favor by contributing to The Outsider. How awesome would that have been?

The problem here, besides the fact that most of the songs on this album suck, is that most of these songs don’t feel like Shadow songs, and it’s not because this isn’t an instrumental album. Cage’s “Grand Ol’ Party Crash”, which was produced by Shadow, feels like a Shadow song due to its composition, and if Shadow had chosen artists who knew how to work with Shadow or how to challenge him, The Outsider could have been so much more than a pretty frame. Ironically, the best song on this album is “Seein’ Thangs” featuring David Banner, who spends his time discussing Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The beat is fitting and subtly varied, Banner carefully chooses his words, and the chorus is memorable—if only The Outsider had more songs this daring.


Read past editions of Own It or Disown It

Read past editions of Own It or Disown It.