Ask any dyed in the wool hip hop head what region runs the game and most will tell you the East Coast. Some might say the West Coast. Others, the South. Stranger still, the Midwest. No one will say Canada. This is a shame. Canada’s got talent. And I’m not just talking about Wheelchair Jimmy either. Along with the moose and mounties, Canada is also home to Eternia, k-os, Buck 65, and, of course, Shad. Shad or Shad K. or Shadrach has only been rapping for a few years, but when he opens his mouth, you’d think he was a seasoned veteran. TSOL, his third album, finds the disgustingly talented emcee at the top of his game.
Shad’s flow is monstrous. He has a snarky, nasal delivery similar to that of Asher Roth, but where Roth spits about drugs, sex and college, Shad aspires to more. Where many emcees kick rhymes, Shad kicks songs, concepts. “Keep Shining” is a loving ode to the women that have played a role in making him who he is today, ladies who “don’t let jams disrespect them on the dance floor.” Later on, “Listen” finds him listening to “Sermon, Gershwin, Earth, Wind and Fire” to try and find direction in a climate where music is lacking in substance and meaning. “A Good Name” tells the story of his biblical namesake, who in one of the more thugged out moments of the Bible, walked through fire to escape his tormentors. Many of the songs are deadly serious and pensive, spinning tales of love, loss, and regret from the perspective of a guy stumbling blindly into adulthood.
As deep as the subject matter may get, Shad manages to keep the album from skirting the depths of despair with his madcap, self-deprecating sense of humor. He’s not much interested in the bravado and chest beating that is the lyrical currency of lesser emcees. He’s too smart for that. He spends TSOL‘s hilarious showstopper of a lead single, “Yaa I Get It”, grappling with his lack of big league success. “Maybe I’m not big cause I don’t blog or Twitter,” he says in the song’s opening line, before snickering and retorting, “Dawg, I’m bitter.” Each line that follows is a dense thicket of blink-and-you-missed-it similes, pop culture junkie metaphors, rhymes inside of rhymes, and totally bonkers quotables. Each song on the album is chock full of startling insights, damaging wit, self-referential underdog charm, and sick beats.
Broken Social Scene associates me&john, Toronto native Ric Notes, Shad’s personal DJ T Lo, Canadian rap veteran Classified, and more have laced TSOL with tracks full of lush boom bap that is influenced as much by the great architects of golden age hip hop as they are by more recent sounds. Second single “Rose Garden” is built around a hard luck soul song, but T Lo dices up the sample so well, it would make Dilla proud. Ric Notes’ “Keep Shining”, with its joyous strings and sped up vocal samples, brings to mind a pre-robot-soul Kanye. “A Good Name” mixes prominent, upbeat drums with light touches of turntablism like a Gang Starr-era Premo. TSOL‘s beats are also flanked by vocals and guitar from Broken Social Scene’ Lisa Lobsinger and Brendan Canning, respectively. Shad’s got a great team working with him.
If you haven’t heard of Shad yet, work on it now. He’s one of the most talented rappers in the business right now, and he literally deserves a bigger audience than he has right now. This record is a real winner. TSOL is 40 minutes of nearly flawless hip hop. It’s twelve songs of dense, captivating instrumentals topped by sheer lyrical chaos. Track the record down. Tell a friend. Go to a show. Support real hip hop.