20 years out from DJ Shadow’s debut record, Endtroducing….., the album remains firmly planted as one of hip-hop’s crowning achievements. Through his genius construction of the record, assembled entirely from samples, DJ Shadow revealed the merit of flipping others’ music into new, reinvigorated pieces—the art of plunderphonics. But that was two decades ago, and since then, Endtroducing….. has become something of a curse for the famed DJ.
It’s a too-often repeated discussion that I’m sure Shadow is tired of hearing: Every subsequent record he’s released has failed to reach the creative height of his debut. Entroducing….. eclipses all that has come after—an artistic misfortune he’s been unable to overcome. Shadow’s latest release, a double album snidely titled Our Pathetic Age, bears no resemblance to his ghost of producer’s past. Shadow’s commitment to reinvention is clear, but when it results in a complete separation from the musical identity he built in the ’90s, you begin to question what he was hoping to accomplish.
The first issue with Our Pathetic Age is its bizarre tracking layout. The double-album is structured in two distinct parts: an instrumental first half and a back-loaded second half rife with features from an incredible cast of MCs. It’s easy to understand the goal of this two-part concept—showcasing Shadow’s talents first and the voices of others second—but there’s one critical flaw in its design: The instrumental first half is atrocious.
Sitting through a slogging collage of beats for 40 minutes before ever hearing a verse is no easy task. It would be one thing if these tracks had a common theme holding them together, but there’s no central voice to bind one to the next. At one point, we’re given disjointed free-jazz rambling on “Beauty, Power, Motion, Life, Work, Chaos, Law,” followed by “Juggernaut,” a song with such an obnoxious repeated sample, I’ve vowed to never torture myself with it again. “Rosie” brings a glimmer of hope with a classic DJ Shadow live drum loop at the start, but it gets progressively worse the longer it sticks around, with the same sample stretched to the point of submission.
By the end of this maddening collage, we’re only halfway through an album that apparently needed to be an hour and a half long. It seems like half the instrumental tracks could have been scrapped, but hey, it’s completely within Shadow’s right to subject us to an asinine grab-bag of bangers. It’s also the listener’s right to search for something different the moment they get bored—which they certainly will. But Shadow would probably blame the “pathetic age” of streaming instead of his own lack of brevity.
The only thing that will keep listeners pressing on is the star-studded back half of the record. The incredible amount of talent Shadow recruited is exciting: Nas, Raekwon, De La Soul, Run The Jewels. Nas comes out with guns blazing on “Drone Warfare,” and the hard-hitting Wu-Tang reunion on “Rain on Snow” is something to behold. Even the production is great, hitting with boom-bap aggression when it needs to on tracks like “Rocket Fuel”—which also features some incredible turntable scratching—and the disco bliss of closer “Our Pathetic Age” with Future Islands’ charismatic frontman Samuel T. Herring. The whole section is musically solid, and it’s baffling why this fantastic run of collaborative tracks is hidden behind a near-insurmountable front-half.
All musicality aside, the most infuriating thing about this project is its repetitive ideas about how we should be using our technology. The thesis is clear with the album’s overt cover art, but the record continues to brazenly shove paranoia into our ears. Our Pathetic Age hits the listener over the head with its message, dishing out boomerish lines like “we don’t memorize phone numbers or directions when we drive” on “C.O.N.F.O.R.M.” and “the machines are gonna win” on “Urgent, Important, Please Read.” Shadow’s proven on Our Pathetic Age that his relevance has been all but lost to the past—even with the voices of hip-hop’s best MCs propping him up.