Earnestness in hip-hop has been synonymous with corniness for far too long; at some point we have to get rid of this post-backpacker hangover. For all the indie-rap iconoclasts who’ve gone introspective somewhere between “Through the Wire” and “Thank Me Now”, there’s still a sense that the average-thoughtful-dude persona is less appealing than the larger-than-life shit-talker. And why not? The shit-talkers are more fun. This is why the best everyman-rap practitioners make sure that their beats punish speakers and their punchlines are more than your typical rimshot fodder.
Shad recognizes this, and that’s why TSOL is a modest but admirable success. The Kenya-born, Ontario-raised rapper has been pegged by the faithful as a new standard bearer for positive rap, and somewhere between this album’s Polaris Prize nomination and its recent rollout to markets outside Canada, a lot has been made of his potential to be a new voice for fans of Talib Kweli and Common. It definitely aims for that: Despite a discreet indie-rock crossover vocal from Broken Social Scene’s Brendan Canning on “Lucky 1’s”, the production-by-committee sound doesn’t stretch the backpacker boom-bap parameters too far.
Still, Shad’s a bit different from your typical conscious figurehead in that he seems more interested in contemplating than crusading. He notes the trap of his supposed niche with some self-awareness on “Keep Shining”– “it’s funny how words like ‘consciousness’ and ‘positive music’ can somehow start to feel hollow”– a line that’s dropped in the process of declaring that dudes need to stop just rapping about strong women and actually give them the mic for once.
What Shad reveals of himself on TSOL is spiritual without being preachy, righteous without being self-righteous, and human without sounding mundane. “Telephone” is a rare breakup track that doesn’t devolve into self-pity or bitter finger-pointing– instead, it slips its matter-of-factness inside some simple wordplay without ducking culpability. “At the Same Time” deals with emotions introspectively. And “Listen” is a compelling portrait of someone who gets completely lost in music, as it shifts from a display of his eclecticism (“listening to ‘Strange Fruit’, Jeru, and Beirut”) to an examination of how he draws his inspiration. If all this humble empathy means that he sounds a bit out-of-character (albeit entertainingly so) when he goes into world-beating battle-monster mode on “Yaa I Get It”, at least he compensates by following up his bragging with a bit of meta-self-awareness: “I hope I ain’t boring y’all rappin’ ’bout rap/ But the only thing I love more than rappin’ is nappin’/ And I know nobody want to hear me rap about that.” I don’t know– he’s probably relatable enough to get away with it.
Shad “TSOL (BBR017U / 626570610076 / C11) Available 10.05.10