Published May 23, 2010"I'm a cynic but I try to keep my heart warm." Amid all the bueno bon mots, mesmerizing metaphors and tasty turns of phrase on Shad's third studio album ― the enigmatically titled TSOL - this particular line, from "Lucky 1s," stands out.
On the surface, such world-weary pessimism seems out of sync with the happy-go-lucky, Fresh Prince-inspired shenanigans Shad revelled in on his most celebrated track and viral video, 2008's "The Old Prince Still Lives At Home," off his Polaris Music Prize-nominated album The Old Prince. Currently living on the West coast, the 28-year old rapper admits that he's in an introspective state of mind. With one eye on furthering his music career and other on continuing to work part-time towards a master's degree in liberal studies at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University, the Kenyan-born, London, ON-raised rapper is at a crossroads. As he prepares to drop one of the most anticipated Canadian hip-hop releases of the year, time will tell if it's enough to launch the Polaris-and Juno-nominated artist into superstar status.
"Music is definitely a priority," says a pensive Shad on the phone over the cacophonous din of a downtown Vancouver coffeehouse. "It's where the bulk of my interest is. [Yet] I've always been of the mind of if you can do multiple things you like at the same time, then that's what you should do."
The Old Prince may have put Shad on the map, but TSOL proves why that he's here to stay. The 13-track project reaffirms his standing as perhaps the most uniquely entertaining rapper in Canada today. Lyrically, Shad doesn't so much step up his game as he's refined it, proving that he's making hip-hop on his own terms in the process.
If the last album was more or less a treatise on whether or not to stay in the Canadian hip-hop game, TSOL embraces his destiny. Still, he remains coy when explaining the meaning behind the album title. Word on the street is that he hasn't even told his management what it stands for: in the case of early '80s L.A. punks T.S.O.L., it was True Sounds of Liberty; given his hometown, others have speculated about The Sound of London.
"TSOL doesn't stand for any one thing," Shad says. "I just liked the sound of it. It represents the insufficiency of language to express feeling and ideas, which is why we have art. It can stand for a number of things: the struggle of love, truth shall overcome lies, 'lost' backward. It's representative of the ambiguity of life in a way."
It's a vibe that TSOL readily exploits, most notably on the unabashedly old school "Yaa I Get It," the album's fiery opening salvo. With a grab bag of industry notables such as TLO, Rich Kidd and Me&John (Ryan Kondrat and John LaMagna) on production, and guest stars Broken Social Scene's Brendan Canning and Lisa Lobsinger, Classified, Relic the Oddity, Kamau and Justin Nozuka, TSOL is definitely spontaneous hip-hop that recalls the genre's golden age.
"It's definitely more upbeat. I think it's hopeful. But I don't try to make any big jump in style. I happen to be lucky and know a lot of talented people," says Shad. "I also try and leave the production to those that that can do it a bit better than I can. For me, the musical process is messy. A lot of times it's train of thought, loose stream-of-consciousness stuff. A lot of nipping and cutting working with different beats to fit with the lyrics."
The project expands on the structured yet free flowing vibe of The Old Prince with a bit more social consciousness mixed in. He shies away from being labelled a "conscious rapper," but revels in honest, clever lyrics, self-awareness and social action. But more importantly, the joints bump hard. Tracks like "Keep Shining," "A Good Name" and "We Are The Ones" touch on humanistic issues around love, politics, racism and his place in the world. Part Slick Rick, part Mordecai Richler, when Shad can effortlessly namedrop a neo-con blowhard ("Glenn Beck better duck like fois gras") and a DC Comics superhero ("Lampin' like Green Lantern") in the same track ("Rose Garden") a certain measure of socially aware eclecticism cannot be dismissed.
"I wouldn't call myself a political rapper. But when you have the opportunity to weigh in on certain issues I tend to drop it in from time to time. I try to keep it musical while having something to say. I have my own views of the world and I tend to share them. And I don't try to a position myself as the anti-anything. I don't want to be reactionary like that. If people are feeling it so be it," Shad says. "Part of it is sometimes you want to play with ideas. It's like probing your subconscious and figuring out where it is that you're at. It's material I believe in and exciting to be on stage to perform, which is the motivation to make new material. Another reason is that this is what I do now - I have the opportunity to do this full-time and this is what I want. So let's sit down and make something worthwhile."
Whether you call him Shad, Shad K., or by his birth name Shadrack Kabango, one thing you can't call him is lacking in mass appeal. He balances the mainstream charisma of Drake, the social conscious of K'naan and the abstract eclecticism of k-os. He's been able to carve out a respected persona that, while not yet a household name, aligns with underground respect and critical acclaim. And whereas the impetus of "Wavin' Flag" sees K'Naan transcend beyond the hip-hop realm, and with Drake firmly entrenched in American Young Money idolatry, Shad seems poised to grab the mantle of Canadian hip-hop superstar. Shad is chilling in the cut between them, and maybe completely separate from them.
"He fits in where he's supposed to fit in," expounds Toronto rapper Ian Kamau philosophically on Shad's Canadian music standing. Kamau, who was featured on The Old Prince, has a rousing guest spot on "Lucky 1s." "He doesn't take it very serious but that's a good thing," Kamau continues, pointing out an interesting and refreshing aspect of Shad's hip-hop approach - Shad's a diarist, but not a fabulist.
"He makes art that reflects that life. It's not just about the art or being popular but more about living and documenting that process. He uses it as a creative outlet to let you know what's on his mind. He enjoys the process of being creative and in the process he creates art. He's one of the most humble artists I know. He hasn't let being in the public un-ground him."
Born in Kenya of Rwandan parentage, Shad's relatively short tenure in the Canadian music scene has yielded a tremendous amount of underground acclaim. It wasn't that long ago that Shad was attending school in Waterloo, ON, performing on the Wilfrid Laurier University campus circuit before entering, on a whim, an unsigned talent contest held by a local radio station. He won, and funnelled his $17,500 prize into the production of his self-made and distributed When This Is Over debut in 2005. In 2007, he signed to indie label Black Box and released his sophomore LP, The Old Prince, which garnered him a 2008 Juno nomination (Rap Recording of the Year), two 2009 MuchMusic Video Award nominations (Rap Video and VideoFACT Video of the Year) and a 2009 Indie Award (Favourite Urban Artist).
"Getting into hip and hop and freestyling was something that I stumbled on after high school. I started to have ideas that I found interesting. When I write, it's very stream of consciousness. I try not to think too hard about it and that's what makes me," Shad says. "At that time it was a great opportunity to record. I was working with a group and had some music that didn't fit in that context. So I wanted to make a project that is entirely my own. It was exciting because I didn't know if I'd have the opportunity to make an album ever again."
With a flow informed by early '90s hip-hop, much of the appeal of Shad's music is his superior writing skill. The combination of his self-deprecating humour and curious mind, which often touches on topics associated with social and political themes, make for easy entry points for listeners, especially those who aren't typically in hip-hop's wheelhouse. Shad is committed to emphatically proving that there's room in hip-hop to express just about anything. That said, he's fully cognizant his accessible charm and why he's been able to build a uniquely Canadian fan base.
The self-described late bloomer concedes that artistry may be in his blood; he's a self-taught guitarist and his mother, Bernadette Kabango, is an acclaimed poet who was featured on the debut album track "I'll Never Understand." But Shad notes that while his interest in music may stem from absorbing the aptitude, it doesn't necessarily inform it. "I think my parents had an influence in who I am as a person and what they prioritize more than any musical heritage that they passed on," he says. "I think that anyone who likes music wants to try it at some point and that's what really happened to me."
Nominated to a Polaris Music award in 2008, he is all too aware of his "Well I don't like rap but I like Shad" status, and the acclaim he's found in a rock-centric Canadian landscape. "They don't mean much," he says about awards and accolades. "Okay that's a lie. They mean a lot, career-wise, so people hear about me and also great in term of validation from peers. It affects your general self-confidence. I'd be lying if I said it doesn't matter. But ultimately I'm happy making a record that I believe in. At this point I can tour and play small clubs, which is great and that's where I'm at.
But this is still essentially a rock-centric country," Shad continues. "People may not have their ears open to understand the diversity of rap and that there are Canadian rappers who make music that relates to our experience. I definitely encounter that. The most I can do if direct people to other artists that are doing the same thing."
Once the graduate paper is wrapped up ("It's a paper on the global influence of hip-hop music," he notes), on deck is a cross-Canada tour with raw collective Grand Analog on the West coast and quirky D-Sisive on the East. Honing his stage presence with two Canadian hip-hop acts - who are quite different from each other yet share common ground with Shad - is another part of his ascension to Canadian hip-hop vanguard. Indeed, as his artistry continues to evolve and the Old Prince gets older and wiser, TSOL reveals that cynicism and optimism are not mutually exclusive.
Success is defined by taking advantage of the opportunities that are presented in front of you," Shad says of his hopes for the album and his career in general. "I'm looking at the tour right now and possibly an international release for TSOL. It's about being responsible with the opportunities that have been presented to me. Sometimes I have to remind myself to slow down and progress at my own pace. I throw hope as the target and progress towards that."