Our Pathetic Age
Mass Appeal Records
I remember when DJ Shadow dropped his début album, Entroducing…, away back in 1996. I was obsessed with it, it was amazing. It was hip hop, it was electronica (EDM didn’t exist yet, kids), it was rock’n’roll. It was everything and nothing at the same time. Shadow changed the game with Entroducing…. The album was created almost exclusively through the use of samples, bringing this intricacy to the music that used to exist in hip hop (think back to the Golden Age of Hip Hop and sample-created albums like De La Soul’s classic début, Three Feet High and Rising). But then he took those samples and distorted and manipulated it, using rudimentary equipment.
Entroducing… was an instant hit in the UK, where Shadow already had a reputation. It took longer for him to gain traction in North America, though it still sold well here. His sampling and arrangements became his legacy from his début. He has gone on to work with a wide variety of artists, including Cut Chemist (himself one of the best DJs of his era), Asia Born, DJ Krush, Depeche Mode, Keane, Q-Tip, Run the Jewels, and I could go on and on on and on.
His albums though, his own work, has seen his beats and song structures become increasingly abstract over the years. His last album, The Mountain Will Fall, from 2016, is case in point. Aside from the Run the Jewels collab, ‘Nobody Speak’ (which has a wicked video), most of the album is abstract, bone-crushing beats, and manipulated samples. Our Pathetic Age continues in this vein.
Or at least half of it does. This is a double album. The first half, tracks 1-11, is all instrumental. It begins with a squall of feedback that is first track ‘Nature Always Wins’ before a slowish beat emerges from the rubble and we get ‘Slingblade’ which is both reflective of Shadow’s more recent work as well as hearkening back to his breakthrough. Over top this slow, pounding beat we have what sounds like a xylophone and synthesizer flourishes. It is an instantly recognizable Shadow track.
This is a political album. Despite its Debbie Downer tile, Shadow himself is optimistic, seeing all this energy in the world, in the Resistance, as he, amongst many, ponder ways to harness all this energy for positive change.
For me, at least, The Mountain Will Fall, reflected a dark age, though it dates from before the onset of our troubles. It is dark, in the beats, in the samples. And in the lyrics when there are guest singers/rappers. Our Pathetic Age is very different. The instrumentals sound more optimistic and bright. They also serve partly as a throwback. ‘Slingblade’ slides into ‘Intersectionallity,’ which is a rather intersectional track, as Shadow seems to skip all over the place, though the synthesizer samples remain bright as the tempo and cadence change, even as the beat seems to liquify under our feet before coming back out the other side.
‘Beauty, Power, Motion, Life, Work, Chaos, Law,’ despite its ungainly title is a wicked bit of a jazz beat, occasionally liquified, with this killer bass and various synth chirps and even some tinkling tinkly things. It sounds both as if it could be on Entroducing… as well as being a product of Makaya McCraven, down to the sample of the live audience. This flows immediately into ‘Juggernaut,’ which begins with a sampled vocal telling us its name is Juggernaut. The beat, then, is scattered, liquidy, and never solid. It is classic later-era Shadow.
‘Weightless’ is exactly that. It is a floating song, bereft of even much of a beat for portions, and when the beat does arrive, it doesn’t really so much ground the song as allow the rest of the samples to continue to float. I can’t quite tell what it is he’s distorted here, to create this fluid sound, like what instrument it was, but it works to convey this weightlessness.
‘Rosie’, which is the b-side to the first single, ‘Rocket Fuel’ (see below) is an interesting track. My ace research skills suggest that the sample around which this track is created comes from the Library of Congress’ collection of folklore and a track called ‘Big Legged Rosie.’ At any rate, the thumping bass of the track drives it over a crisp beat.
The instrumentals part of this album is brilliant, I’d say, though it takes some getting into. It was really only by the third or fourth listen that I finally begin to ‘get’ them. And this is one thing I’ve always liked about Shadow, he is not immediately accessible, even on Entroducing…, you need to spend some time with his beats. More than that, even through samples and beats, Shadow is saying something, and more than that, there is some intellectual thought into his beat construction.
The second half of this album is pure hip hop, as everyone stops by from De La Soul to Run the Jewels to Nas and Pharoahe Monch, from Pusha T to Wu-Tang to Blackalicious. It begins with ‘Drone Warfare’ featuring Nas and Monche. Here, whilst Shadow’s flourishes in the beats remain the same, towards the abstract and liquification, the beat itself is hard and heavy, and Nas and Pharoahe Monch drop their rhymes over, discussing climate change and the impending doom of the world. This is both old school hip hop of phat beats and turn table scratching, and new school. And both Nas and Pharoahe Monch sound as invigorated as they have in nigh-on 20 years.
Inspectah Deck, Ghostface, and Raekwon from the Wu show up next on ‘Rain on Snow.’ And Shadow pays his homage to The Rza with an opening vocal sample before dropping this wicked beat and a fuzzed bass you could trip over. The vocal samples of an ethereal voice singing ‘Rain on Snow’ sounds both cinematic and claustrophobic. Not surprisingly, it’s Ghostface who turns the best rhyme here.
And ‘Rain on Snow’ flows directly into ‘Rocket Fuel,’ which starts with a ‘Na-na-na-na-na’ beat and a sampled introduction/’Ready-Set-Go’ before Pos from the Soul steps up. In a lot of ways, Shadow has created a classic De La track, with the samples and the horns, and, of course, they and Prince Paul pretty much invented the fucking game of heavy sampled albums. Both Dave and Pos have changed their styles over the years, Dave more so, but for elder statesmen of the game, they can still bring the heat.
‘Jo Jo’s World,’ featuring Stro, is perhaps the most powerful track on this side of the album, as a slowish beat, sparse in nature, sees Stro tell us his story, about the difficulties of growing up in the ghetto, and the problems in such families, noting he was called a crack baby. His character is trapped by life.
‘Urgent, Important, Please Read’ features Rockwell Knuckles, Tef Poe, and Daemon. It begins with an intro:
So there’s this thing…
It’s called the theory of planned behavior
You started to predict an individual’s intentions to engage in a behavior
At a specific time and place
I don’t know if you’ve been looking at your phones or looking at your screens, but, um…
Careful with your info
And then the beat kicks in and the song begins. Over an almost old school beat, Rockwell, Tef Poe and Daemon rap about the human experience and, amongst other things, racism and the experience of African Americans in the United States today.
Taken together, to a large degree, Our Pathetic Age is actually more two albums than a double album, so different are the first and second discs. Either way, they both display Shadow’s great skill in all different directions.