Admittedly I really like Shad. I made that clear when his last album came out. It may be cliched for a white guy who occasionally listens to independent music (re: mostly) to say he likes “conscious” rap music, but the fact that Shad’s music tends towards the cerebral is one big part of why I love that album. The same goes for Shad’s new record as well.
TSOL is a terrific progression from The Old Prince and it shows that Shad’s paying attention. He knows that music he’s been making for the last five years stands alone and he’s not venturing too far out of the arena he’s already occupying; instead he’s he’s tweaking the show only slightly while he waits for the audience to realize what he’s doing and file into the building.
The central theme to the album seems to be equal parts love and respect and a question of what and who defines those characteristics. Shad strikes a much more positive stance than on his previous album, the equally wonderful breakthrough The Old Prince. On that record he was much more down-trodden, even on the more excitable tracks like the attention-grabbing anti-bling “The Old Prince Still Lives At Home.” Despite the humourous bent of the song it was still at its heart about Shad not being able to make a living through his music, a theme revisited on other songs. “Out Of Love Pt. 2″ carried through a thread lamenting loneliness and the perceived negative impact it has had on Shad’s music.
But things have changed. Here he sounds downright ebullient, joyous, even. He’s still referencing bible verses, mentions his love of napping several times, and throws everything including the kitchen sink into his arrangements. But he seems like he’s enjoying the process more than ever.
A testament to that fact is the predominance of upbeat tracks on TSOL. Where “The Old Prince Lives At Home” was one of the only really upbeat, “banging” (I can’t believe I just wrote that) tracks on The Old Prince, TSOL boasts a few numbers that are downright rocking. Chief among them is the most rocking number and my personal favourite track, “We, Myself, And I,” one of the last songs on the record. Not only is it a highly bombastic track from a musical standpoint, it’s also lyrically ambitious (maybe even audacious?); after opening with a callback to his last record (”I don’t normally like to start verses with ‘I’ but…”) Shad offers three verses, each distinctly centering around analytical musings about himself, where he and his music fit in the world, and the current state of the world at large. The wordplay, the giant hooks, and his lyrical deftness is as impressive as ever on this track and its hard not to get swept up in his instructional chorus.
He’s also taking an inspirational stance here in more ways than one. Yes, he opens the record by referencing the bible; yes, he exclaims at one point that, “Staying true to Jesus (pronounced “Hay-zeus”) is harder than fake boobs.” But he also looks to his family for inspiration. He once again samples recordings of his parents at various points on the album and the gorgeous “A Good Name” is a tribute to his ancestry that has literally brought tears to my eyes. Shad traces his lineage to his family’s ancestral home in Africa and the larger-than-life figure his full first name is taken from while also offering his father the “mad props” he now realizes are well deserved for raising a family right despite the trials and tribulations of life.
As if Shad needed to differentiate himself any more, he also offers up one of the most respectful rap songs ever written about the women in his life. He offers thanks to his sisters, cousins, aunts, his mother, and every other woman in his life that is a “clever broad with goals like Federov.” And he means it.
All along the way the songs are jam-packed with live instruments, deft scratching, and a huge, full sound miles away from spare arrangements on old songs like “I Heard You Had A Voice Like An Angel.” Tracks like “Yaa, I Get It” (the closest he gets to cynicism and proof that even the most positive person can have their weak moments) and “We, Myself, and I” sound like organized chaos with sound coming from all directions at all times. Several tracks, most noticeably “Rose Garden,” feature well-integrated samples that, in some cases, provide or augment the hook.
Inspirational without being cloying or heavy-handed, clever without having to wink at the audience to let them in on the joke, personal without being self-obsessed (*cough* Kanye *cough*), honest without being a martyr, and unique without having to rely on bizarreness, TSOL is the rap album of 2010. You’ve outdone yourself, Shad. That Polaris should’ve been yours; hopefully you can still get your own place one of these days.