Compared to other legendary hip-hop producers that got their beginnings in the ’90s, DJ Shadow has not quite kept up. Just look at his peers who are on top of the world right now, even after 25 years in the game. El-P is pumping out some of the hardest production of his career as part of Run The Jewels, somehow competing with contemporary experimentalists like clipping., Death Grips and JPEGMAFIA. Madlib is still a prolific music making machine, maintaining his iconic lo-fi sound for modern rap rock stars like Kanye West, cooking up beats on his iPad for shits and giggles. And then there’s DJ Shadow. The eccentric. The kooky collector with more vinyl records in his possession than the average American household’s yearly income. The hip-hop trailblazer who has never been able to turn heads with his music the way his debut album did in ’96. Behold: He is out with a brand new 90-minute behemoth.
Our Pathetic Age is more interesting before listening, with its flashy Roy Lichtenstein-esque cover art and two-pronged structure: The first half is all instrumentals, while the second half is packed with features. Guest vocalists are an unconvential mix of OG rap legends (Nas, De La Soul, some of Wu-Tang Clan’s hardest hitters), modern hip-hop kings (Run The Jewels, Pusha T) and random nobodies (who the fuck is Barny Fletcher?).
DJ Shadow doesn’t shy away from flexing his technical ability on this record. “Slingblade” is horrifying and perplexing, with freaky pitched vocal samples and sputtering cyberpunk synths. There’s something weird going on with the percussion that makes it unsatisfying to the listener’s expectations, creating an intentional discomfort that might be better unpacked by someone who understands music theory.
By the time “Juggernaut” comes on, it’s obvious DJ Shadow wants you to feel an oppressive weight through the music. His weapons of choice are overwhelming noisey blares, too many snares and that creepy sound you always hear in horror movie trailers. Then plays a vocal sample where a man says, “Sometimes you are so charmed by the music, he might be saying ‘death, death, death,’ and you would not notice.” The title is Our Pathetic Age and the album cover is a girl staring at a smartphone. It takes very little effort to decipher the album’s message. It’s like that episode of “SpongeBob” when Squidward accidentally gets stuck in the Krusty Krab freezer for 2,000 years. This album is just DJ Shadow curling on the floor screaming “FUUTUUUREEE.”
There are some other neat cuts in the mix on side A. “Firestorm” is an orchestral composition; that’s something new for DJ Shadow, whose debut Endtroducing has a Guinness World Record for being the first album recorded with only sampled sounds. It’s got some Toby Fox vibes going on, invoking the magic and nostalgia of the “Undertale” soundtrack. That’s an influence I never expected to find on a DJ Shadow album. The highlight instrumental is “Rosie.” The way the vocal sample gets chopped up and deconstructed is terrifying. By the midpoint, when the eerie oscillating synths and sticky bassline kick in, I’m seeing little Rosie in my midnight dreams.
For the most part, though, the beats on disc one sound a little too sterile, a little too unfocused, a little too lost and rambling in their runtime. That leaves the weight of this bloated album on the backs of all the zany disc two features. Could fire verses save this album?
Maybe they could have, but the majority of the raps on this half are not fire. They’re not even mediocre. They’re mostly dirt that snuffs this album out. If disc one invokes the OK boomer meme, then disc two is cashing it in for all its worth. Immediately on “Drone Warfare,” the societal commentary is extremely heavy handed. There is nothing clever about lines like “I duct tape the cam on a Mac Pro” or “My smartphone’s listening.” It’s like DJ Shadow got a bunch of hip hop legends on the album just to spout off vague doomsday-sounding bullshit.
That unwoke commentary on society today pervades throughout most of the verses on the album. The worst offender is “C.O.N.F.O.R.M.,” featuring the most uninspired and cringe-inducing lyrics about social media I have ever heard. The production isn’t bad at least. It’s just that the piano keys literally sound like the intro to the “Goosebumps” TV series, and I cannot unhear it for the life of me.
There are bits of gold that shine beneath DJ Shadow’s oppressively unimpressive thematic direction. Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon of Wu-Tang Clan spit some of the album’s smoothest verses on “Rain On Snow,” sandwiched between a blood-chilling chorus. “Rocket Fuel” is blessed by De La Soul’s unwieldy groove, the only instance of cheer on the entire album that makes for a breath of fresh air among the futuristic despair. The beat on “Taxin’” would not sound out of place on an album from a modern LA rapper like ScHoolboy Q or Jay Rock. Unsurprisingly, Run The Jewels bring the heat on “Kings & Queens,” rapping over a gorgeous soul sample. And the best vocal performance goes to Pusha T on the bonus track “Been Use Ta.” He raps over the unfortunate beat from “C.O.N.F.O.R.M.,” but with far better writing and delivery than the random wackjobs DJ Shadow enlisted for the not-bonus version.
Our Pathetic Age has its high points on both discs, but bloat is the death of this record. On the instrumental half, it’s mediocre bloat, and on the feature-packed half, it’s poisonous bloat. Cut out the unfocused tracks from side A and the god-awful tracks from side B, string it together a little more cohesively, and this album might have been memorable. Too bad it’s only middling at best.