On the follow-up EP to last year’s The Mountain Will Fall, Shadow bucks expectations and finds inspiration in unlikely collabs with Nas and Danny Brown.
Early in his career, back when he was still a college-radio striver a couple years away from inspiring Mixmag to coin the term “trip-hop,” DJ Shadow made his way doing what hip-hop producers usually did: creating beats for rappers. He built up a promising résumé, from his self-released 1991 mixtape Hip Hop Reconstruction from the Ground Up (featuring a drums-of-the-apocalypse remix of Eric B. & Rakim’s “Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em”) to his time making G-funk-deconstructing classics with neo-Panther and Bay Area MC Paris, in 1992, to his run on Solesides, starting in 1993, crafting beats for Blackalicious and Lateef the Truth Speaker. But once Endtroducing..… blew up in 1996, Shadow’s aptitude for abstract instrumental beats took center stage. And with rare exceptions—Kool G Rap and Mike D taking turns confronting “Drums of Death” on UNKLE’s Psyence Fiction; a hyphy detour on The Outsider (which, say what you will, gave us a great E-40 track); the Posdnuos/Kweli backpacker summit on The Less You Know, the Better’s “Stay the Course”—his music was pegged, usually unfairly, as hip-hop for people who didn’t like rap.
If the fact that the Run the Jewels collab “Nobody Speak” became far and away the biggest crowd-pleaser on last year’s The Mountain Will Fall doesn’t put the Timbs to that theory, the leading twofer on follow-up EP The Mountain Has Fallen probably should. There’s no ’90s-vet rapper’s-rapper quite like Nas, and few MCs this decade who’ve reached EDM and indie audiences on their own honest terms as successfully as Danny Brown, so bringing them in for collaborations reads like a canny move on the surface. But Shadow’s history of fuck-what-you-think iconoclasm puts these collaborative highlights in a more musical context that pushes past simple optics.
For instance: What do you even expect from “Shadow produces Nas” when both artists have been repeatedly burdened with the expectation of returning to their debut forms? Nas has been keeping quiet since his fine 2012 comeback, Life Is Good, save a few stray singles that keep up his future-focused elder-statesman vibe. So hearing him amped and inspired is always welcome, even when it’s a little thematically scattershot. “Systematic” seems lyrically torn between fuck-the-system calls to “occupy all streets” and hood-mogul dreams of tech ventures—a tension that gave it a self-aware spot on the “Silicon Valley” soundtrack while nodding to Nas’ investments with his own QueensBridge Venture Partners. At least you have a jittery, propulsive electro-G-funk beat to ponder late capitalism to; it’s almost like a direct nod to Nas’ predecessors in Queens’ Juice Crew, considering it hits a lot of the same dirty, low-end synth squawks as Masta Ace’s “Born to Roll.”