20 years ago, DJ Shadow gave us his best album. Endtroducing… demonstrated the range of Shadow’s abilities, from an incredible tact for beat-making and genre-bending, to crafting and fine tuning an unmatched arsenal of samples. Not only did that first album propel him through the scene at the end of ’96, it quickly became a milestone of instrumental hip hop in and of itself.
The awkward truth of the matter is that while DJ Shadow has continued to be a force throughout the industry, nothing he’s put out has ever matched the magic that Endtroducing… dazzled us all with. Three albums and a heap of mixed reviews later, Shadow has emerged with his fourth full length. The Mountain Will Fall is a self-described “parting gift” to listeners who have only ever been interested in the artist’s crafty crate-digging days, an attempt to acknowledge the persona he’s accrued while finally putting that image of himself to rest. It’s a romantic struggle, the artist in a state of metamorphosis, and it’s one that works well as The Mountain’s running motif. Unfortunately for DJ Shadow, it’s the songs most akin to the self he’s leaving behind that standout on the record.
Perhaps it should be unsurprising, as he’s built his reputation on working with other musicians’ sounds and ideas, but the best songs on The Mountain Will Fall are the ones that feature outside talent. Of the dozen tracks on the album, less than half are collaborations (with a cast ranging from the ever-relevant Run the Jewels, to Euro hero Nils Frahm, and the practically unheard of Ernie Fresh), but it’s this minority where The Mountain really shines. More to the point, it’s the contributions of Shadow’s guests that bring most of the excitement.
On “Nobody Speak”, Killer Mike’s line “What more can I say? We top billin’ it,” serves as a hidden truth.
Although RTJ is only featured on the track, the sentiment is not misplaced; Run the Jewels control the song as if it were their own, hooks and verses cascading over a funkadelic horn and rhythm section. The wonderfully juxtaposed “Ashes to Oceans”, which features experimental trumpeter and composer Matthew Halsall, is an equally rewarding listen, for entirely different reasons. “Ashes” isn’t afraid to appear melancholy, providing a moment of serenity that’s desperately needed amidst garbled the synthesization of Shadow’s solo stuff.
However, it’s the aptly titled “The Sideshow” that winds up being better than the main act. Centered around an outrageous scratch battle between Shadow and the up-and-coming Ernie Fresh, it’s the song that sells the album. The problem? It’s entirely indicative of the old school approach that DJ Shadow has been trying to move on from for years. When the best song on The Mountain Will Fall is the one that sounds like it belongs on a decades-old record, you’re probably better off just sticking to the classics.
by Elijah Teed