Exclaim!'s Best of 2013: Top 10 Hip-Hop Albums

4. Shad
Flying Colours
(Black Box)

Shad has never really played it safe per se, challenging hip-hop conventions on one hand, immersing himself in the familiar sound and vernacular of the culture on the other. But there's an intangible aspect to Flying Colours that makes it his biggest curveball yet.

With the odd exception, historically Shad's been unabashedly affable, switching up flows like a pro but rarely touting his gifts as a rapper or a lyricist — even though almost every line of his can be broken down for some witty joke or double meaning. And while the beats he has chosen are all over the map, nothing from his past is quite as challenging as the sound and tone of Flying Colours.

Even the seemingly lighter moments here, like say, "Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins)," are full of politicized sentiments about race, class, and equality in Canada. And the beautiful music of "He Say She Say" is more heartbreaking once its love-gone-wrong message hits home.

This from a guy who used to rap, "I want a Clair Huxtable," as a way of measuring his desire for companionship and keeping actual feelings at bay by settling into fiction, particularly the disposable morality of sitcoms. Flying Colours is a coming-of-age album by an artist dealing with the harshness of the world personally and positively, but most tellingly, as an adult. (Vish Khanna)