Shad Realizes That His Music Has a Message
"If someone would have asked me at the start of my career, 'Do you have a message in your music?' I would have been like, 'Absolutely not.' But now it's becoming apparent that I definitely, definitely do."
Published Sep 30, 2021These days, it's so easy to feel disconnected from, well, everything. This was clear to Toronto-based rapper Shad, even before the pandemic. Shad saw many of 2021's social ills on the horizon, and he's been using his music to address topics from strained relationships to racism to war since 2005. And yet, in spite of the widespread malaise of the past two years, Shad's new album, TAO, is all about having hope in the face of gloom.
"That's what I feel like I can contribute as an artist," Shad tells Exclaim! "I like to make people think but also laugh. I like to provide a spark of some kind of joy."
Shad's thoughtful and easygoing personality has always come through in his music, and he's become known for his honest lyrics and talent for bringing hip-hop to new contexts, audiences and conversations. He also took over CBC Radio's radio show Q for a year in 2015, and in 2016 he started hosting a Netflix docuseries Hip-Hop Evolution, which has since had four seasons exploring the origins and facets of the genre. Now, Shad is back with his sixth album, TAO, and it might just be his most vital yet.
The album's title might make audiences think of the taijitu or yin-yang, the divided circle representing duality, and the balance of dark and light. It's apt, then, that TAO is a project of contrasts. It, too, started with the image of a divided circle — one that's breaking into smaller fragments, drifting apart until they disappear. To Shad, that broken circle represents us as individuals.
"You think about a whole person, and then these different fragments are the different parts of ourselves," Shad says. "Our work life, or our relationship with the natural world, or our relationship to each other, just as three examples. We have those things breaking away from the whole."
Despite the album's sombre topics and theme, Shad approaches these issues with playfulness and a sense of levity. TAO is full of tracks that are just plain fun to listen to, and even when Shad lays out his personal philosophies or decries societal ills, he never comes off as preachy. His delivery feels like a conversation with a friend, heartfelt and real, and he's as witty as he is personal. Each song on TAO tackles a different facet of humanity that is under threat, and Shad makes these shared experiences feel a little less daunting by facing them with a smile.
A perfect example of Shad's juxtapositional approach is "Black Averageness," where he takes a tongue-in-cheek look at the societal expectations for "Black excellence." The song features jaunty piano chords and soulful Hammond organ, with a moving bassline and gospel vocal samples. It's an easygoing, joyful sound, atop which Shad delivers sunny bars like, "They want me to be bad, but I won't / They want me to like jazz, but I don't / Wish I did, too many notes / Can't I live at my crib? We just boast / I'm a man, why'd I want to be a G.O.A.T.?"
"It's a funny song," Shad reflects, "but it has a message too, about how it's okay to be a human being, especially for Black people. Because a lot of times we get viewed as not exactly human — either these outliers in a good way, like magically gifted athletes or entertainers, or pathologically incapable. It's either end of the spectrum. There's not a lot of freedom to just be regular."
The broadness of TAO's overarching theme gave Shad the freedom to come at these ideas with different approaches. He covers serious topics with humour, like on "Black Averageness," and contrasts heavy messages with light, fun instrumentals, unpacking challenging social issues with poppy hooks and irresistibly danceable grooves.
"Out of Touch," the album's opener and the first single Shad released this year, does just this. Serving as TAO's thesis statement, Shad's bars address everything he wants to discuss later in the album, all on top of a bright piano loop and a strong hook that argues that many of our struggles stem from one thing: we're out of touch — not just with each other, but also with ourselves.
Similarly, "Slot Machines" is a poppy summer tune about the addictive nature of social media. A syncopated synth bass and drum combo rolls dreamily under samples of casino games with a catchy chorus that's reminiscent of a BROCKHAMPTON song. There's a beat switch-up at the last minute, and Shad goes in on a cutting verse about how life comes at you fast when you're caught up in the cycle of always wanting more.
"That was the fun, creative challenge that got me excited about making this album," he notes. "With this overarching theme, how can I make it feel like music, like it's exciting and approachable, and ultimately leave people with a sense of hopefulness, some sense of connection."
Shad always comes at each new project with a wealth of new ideas, and he has explored a broad array of sounds to blend with hip-hop throughout his decade-plus career. His home base is rapping over a classic boom-bap beat, as can be heard on TAO's titular suite, which is spread across three tracks throughout the album. He's not one to stand still for long, though: Shad loves to push himself and sees risk-taking is part of his responsibility as an artist.
"If there's no stakes in some way, whether it's taking a chance musically, lyrically, I'm not sure it's worthy of putting into the world," he says. "There's no risk, there's no vulnerability."
Shad took a few risks with fresh sounds on TAO. "Work" is new ground for him, harkening back to the '80s hip-hop sounds of Def Jam and harnessing notable punk energy. The track goes absolutely bonkers while discussing how precarious and unfulfilling modern work can be. Buzzed out 808s, pounding drum fills and wildly distorted record scratches bash out beneath Shad's laments of "I'm not a man, I am a workhorse / I am a part of the workforce / I'm just not sure the person or purpose I work for."
The single "Storm" shows Shad stepping into an ethereal, '70s soul-inspired sound that came to him in a dream. Toronto indie rock band Jane's Party, Canadian poet George Elliot Clarke, and rapper pHoenix Pagliacci all helped capture that otherworldly sound he envisioned. The combined effect of all these different elements is a song that's dreamy and danceable. It simultaneously feels like a tune you've known for years and one you're discovering for the first time.
"I feel really glad that it worked out, because it's one of those ones where I knew it was an experiment and I wasn't sure it was gonna work," Shad admits. "Storm" stands out to him because it feels like someone else's song, but still communicates the fun, soulful feeling he wanted on TAO.
While this particular '70s sound is a first for him, bringing together a bunch of disparate elements to recontextualize hip-hop in a broader musical spectrum is classic Shad. Even as early as his first album, 2005's When This Is Over, Shad received praise for his inclusion of poetry written by his mother Bernadette Kabango (who also speaks on this album, on the track "GOD," about what it means to be human), and his fourth album, 2013's Flying Colours, was hailed for its diverse blending and exploration of multiple genres and styles.
The contrasts shown on TAO all link back to the central theme, and to Shad's ethos as an artist. Even with this idea of a broken circle with pieces of ourselves floating away, Shad wants his listeners to leave with wind in their sails — and he's learned that's always been the case with his music.
"I do think I'm telling the same story of peace and wholeness, and how difficult it is, but how we have to keep trying and how we have to keep trying together," Shad said. "It's the thing I need to tell myself all the time, which is to keep trying. If someone would have asked me at the start of my career, 'Do you have a message in your music?' I would have been like, 'Absolutely not.' But now it's becoming apparent that I definitely, definitely do. But it's the message I need to hear."