DJ Shadow has been skirting predictability for a good long while. The Outsider might have been a critical and fanbase fiasco, but at least it proved he was trying to engage with the greater hip-hop world and make something that didn’t fit the precedent of Endtroducing…. (And we got a pretty damn good E-40 track out of it.) Shadow could be excused for testing his limits, for reacting to the sounds currently reverberating through the instrumental hip-hop arena he helped build. And it’s tempting to speculate what his next move might be. He could be ricocheting off recent psychedelic L.A. bass music, or trying to see how his beat-building/breakdown technique could spar against UK funky rhythms, or maybe just stripping things back to the point of minimalism. The fact that he’s calling his upcoming album The Less You Know, the Better says something about his M.O., at least.
Then again, the I Gotta Rokk EP contains a few singles drawn from that album, and they suggest a new direction more along the lines of what people expected from him 10 years ago. Any of the three original tracks on this EP would’ve fit well stylistically as follow-ups to the prog-skewing aspirations of The Private Press, representing a gradual evolution from his sample-virtuoso approach. As they stand in 2011, these songs are a bit of a mixed bag, flirting with sounds that could qualify as trendy or forward-thinking in bass music without jumping into the thick of it.
It’s not so much the scattershot styles that register as strange; if there’s anywhere hard rock, psych-folk, and electro-glitch all share a root context, it’s in the scrapyard assemblage of an ecclectic cratedigger like Shadow. It’s more of a structural disconnect, where it’s possible to hear what he’s reaching for but harder to grasp just how he plans to get there. The title track lurches around in a stoner-rock plod, as a creeping armada of metal guitars eventually bleeds through its slow build to a manic false-ending. The hesher trappings are novel enough, but its drums are uniquely Shadow’s: clipped yet heavy-sounding snares, hi-hats, and claps that sound culled from a dozen long-buried sources, but which coalesce into a dense vortex of percussion.
The other two originals debuted last year as a digital single, and if they’re both distinctly Shadow, they also prove how nebulous that descriptor really is. “I’ve Been Trying” leans toward the same vaguely soulful psych-folk that informed “Six Days” and “This Time (I’m Gonna Try It My Way)”, but it sounds less like an actual sample-based construction than a song with overdubs– it’s one of those cuts that might feel more alive if the seams were less concealed. “Def Surrounds Us” is the more intriguing proposition, Shadow loosely toying with dubstep in a somewhat self-aware mode. The Southern-bounce digital snare rolls and hornet-sting synthesizers approach Benga’s more jittery moments, but only until the song takes a left turn into glitchy drum’n’bass. It may be the most manic thing he’s done since the similarly structured “Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain”, and it’s proof positive that he can still do exhilarating, spectacular things with drum breaks.
Out of three additional remixes, the one that pulls it off the best ironically has the weakest source material: Various’ take on “I’ve Been Trying” scatters that track’s weedy vocals into lonely dub echoes, bringing out the same sense of isolation with a completely different mood. The other two– Irn Mnky’s Pendulum-style “Swagger Mix” of “I Gotta Rokk” and Rockwell’s twitchy, overstuffed remix of “Def Surrounds Us”– show just how tacky contemporary drum’n’bass bombast can be, weirdly managing to use all the prominent elements of their originals to create remixes that miss all the things that make Shadow’s tracks slice instead of bludgeon. At least the first three tracks prove that Shadow himself still knows how that approach works.
— Nate Patrin, June 13, 2011