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DJ Shadow

The Less You Know, the Better

Rating: 3.5/5.0

Label: Verve Records / Island / A&M

While instrumental hip-hop benefits from an open-door policy of “anything goes” in terms of influence, the various elements that have been at play over the course of its existence have made the genre itself among the most difficult to define. DJ Shadow’s 1996 debut Endtroducing became the new standard, an array of sound collages and sampling mastery orchestrated with a gift for song structure allowing the tracks to be more than just beats MCs haven’t rapped on yet. But the boundaries it pushed and its subsequent influence was felt in genres from electronic music to mash-ups, ushering in a generation of albums from DJs that make record store re-shelving an absolute nightmare. Following the death of producer J Dilla in 2006, instrumental hip-hop has had a tremendous resurgence in interest, but suffers more than ever from producers not only missing the concept of experimenting WITHIN a genre, but the failure to differentiate between “beat tapes” and “albums.” DJ Shadow has returned to a genre he helped birth – that subsequently became an over-saturated wasteland – to make things right with The Less You Know, the Better.

The biggest advantage DJ Shadow seems to have over his contemporaries is that he actually knows what he’s doing. What many of these born-again beat baptists fail to realize is that the two things their fans want are fleshed-out songs and beats that actually fall into their realm of interest. Shadow’s both a student of hip-hop and a true crowd-pleasing DJ, a winning combination that ensures his songs have enough going on to avoid “I sure wish there was someone rapping right now” reactions. He gets that it’s not enough to just assemble loop after loop after loop. While he mostly stays within a standard thumping beat backdrop, there’s so much going on in between that these walls he’s constructed make for the perfect escalating momentum for his ideas to bounce off of. While other super-producers have let their rock curiosities unfold into something reminiscent of the Tenacious D “learn guitar in front of a live audience” sign, Shadow has tracks like “I Gotta Rokk” that re-appropriates the sounds that captured his imagination into a battleground where he can utilize their potential to the fullest.

Whatever fears one has of The Less You Know, the Better’s two-year delay due to sample clearance issues are immediately silenced with the strong back-to-back opening of “Back to Front (Circular Logic)” and “Border Crossing.” Copyrights be damned, this is the Shadow we’ve always wanted. While there are a handful of moments that don’t quite work – such as Shadow’s scoring of what sound like poems intended for spoken word in “Give Me Back the Nights” and “Going Nowhere” as well as a guest appearance from Talib Kweli, whose verse in “Stay the Course” is out of place and woefully outshined by De La Soul’s Posdnuos – he’s much more hit than miss. He’s not just a master of lush layering; some of the album’s most powerful moments, such as “Scale it Back” and “(Not So) Sad and Lonely,” give it a wonderful balance of crescendo and decrescendo.

DJ Shadow has stated several times in interviews that with The Less You Know, the Better, he wanted to make not a 2011 record, but a collection of music that was truly timeless. While the record itself has suffered from the distinctively modern obstacle of copyright issues, the most significant timelessness evident here is Shadow’s uncanny ability to have the lemons he intended to give us removed for legal purposes and still serve up refreshing lemonade.

by. Chaz Kangas

Key Tracks: Border Crossing, I Gotta Rokk, Scale it Back

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