Shad, a conscious Kenyan-Canadian rapper, has been grinding since the mid-2000s, although he gained prominence for his third album, TSOL. An emotionally rich and lyrically solid effort, it even saw him beating Drake’s then-massive Thank Me Later for a Juno Award. Drake still went on to receive all the attention, cultural assimilation and, of course, the money. It would resemble Fiona Apple releasing The Idler Wheel… on the same day as Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. No way in hell Amazon would risk buying a million copies of Apple’s bleak expressionist pop and sell it for $.99. Likewise, although it was not a direct competitor, Shad’s project was often overlooked for the equally emotional yet less urgent release.
While he’s returned to the booth on The Spring Up, a five-track jab of Shad’s usual tightly wound lyricism and clean-cut thought processes over Skratch Bastid’s meat-and-potatoes production, the haunting fear that his brand of rap is hopelessly obsolete bleeds into every track. Whether by him espousing apologetic praise on “Classic”, taking a mental breather from daily stresses on “Out Of My Head” or by ramming a sharp spear to the heart of the matter on “Peace”: “It’s clear that conscious rap is dead/ we done hearing it, heads feeling that trap ‘cuz we trapped still,” the listener gets the odd feeling that the problems A Tribe Called Quest faced on “Show Business” are alive and well.
Thankfully, Shad and Skratch both refused to compromise on quality when combining their talents for this project. Not only can the Canadian artist rap his ass off, he does so without offending anyone or even letting a cuss word slip past his lips; he instead opts for a heaping helping of internal rhymes, momentous enjambments and his optimistic spirit. In the same regard, Skratch’s beats possess the sheen of a freshly made Southern trap beat, but with 100 percent less snare rolls and digital bass programming. “Classic”, the blockbuster-sounding banger co-produced by DJ Jazzy Jeff, is the best example of this union, as he laces a barreling beat of horn blasts and funky drumming with wisdom: “See fashion’s just a flash in the pan/ While classic stays classic till it’s fashion again/ So I’d rather be the baddest with a pad and a pen/ Than just hot for a minute off some fad or a trend.”
While Shad’s more involved style can arguably be considered contemporary, it’s his undivided attention to the task at hand that makes those lyrics roll by without an eye roll or a sense of stubborn adherence to form. Each song does actually features a marked change in Shad and Skratch’s approach according to the topic: “Outta My Head” features a smooth, bubbly Shuggie Otis sample as a backdrop for continuing against the odds, whether it be as simple as getting out of bed in the morning or believing that your every breath is not in vain, and has Shad slowing down his flow to let every word sit on the eardrum a bit; “Clappin”, a rap for rap’s sake, nods at the ATCQ track “Clap Your Hands” with the respective sample, warbling bass and hefty live drumming as Shad busily describes life like a thick nest of copyright infringement, has Santa Claus raze an entire neighborhood and constantly check Google Alerts; “Homie” is a truly fun song about the music-making process and the joys of a breakthrough, seeing him prepare a “Neil Diamond mine full of fine poems” and perform them on stages like its his home.
But things get dour on the EP closer, the somewhat aptly named “Peace”. On its face, the track does wish for goodwill towards men and the whole shebang, but not before venting out frustrations. It’s packed with maxims that emphasize his philosophical clarity: “What if peace is something more than appeasement?/ If power rules the world, living peacefully is treason.” Even though the only topic he truly pins down is the ugly perception of hip hop, his seamless transition from social disruption to the corporate infrastructure surrounding the art form implies that both problems go hand in hand.
A much worse reviewer might spin a yarn about the implied references to the Arab Spring in the title and how this song is the “backpacker’s rally cry to overcome the oppression of their beloved genre,” but that’s highly preposterous. I simply get the feeling that Shad’s just been aching to get things off of his chest and is doing it the only way he knows how: flipping words over great production. The Spring Up might not get radio play, but it’s a classic in its own right.