By Alan Ranta
Kenya-born, Canada-raised rapper Shad has been through a lot since he dropped Flying Colours, his third consecutive Polaris Prize short listed album, in 2013. He became a positive face for CBC’s q after Jian Ghomeshi was fired in disgrace, hosted the award-winning documentary series Hip-Hop Evolution, and most recently became a husband and father. If you think parenthood is going to make him soft, you’ll be dead wrong.
“I thought that maybe it would make me feel more conservative, just in terms of wanting to be stable,” Shad says over the phone. “But it’s actually made me feel like I have to live out my values even more, like there’s somebody watching. I assumed it would make me get more pragmatic and sensible, but it’s kind of done the opposite. Made me think even more about what it looks like to live out my values every day.”
Returning to hip-hop production after a five year gap, A Short Story about a War is arguably his most ambitious work yet. It’s a complex concept album set on a desert planet waging a seemingly ceaseless world war. The album is a staggering, insightful examination of humanity’s attempt to survive the drawn out effects of a desperate capitalist system.
“This album is really anti-capitalist, more than I think I even realized when I was making it,” Shad says. “Do I think we’ll survive? I want to say yes, but there are a lot of challenges. I think the biggest challenge is how quickly things change, and it’s difficult for us to get our heads around what to do, frankly. Our institutions are big and slow. Our governments are big and slow. Meanwhile, technology is shaping us really quickly. I don’t know how we are supposed to contend with that. There is something energizing about having a problem to solve, and our generation has a lot of big problems to solve, everything from the environment to inequality. I don’t know if we’ll figure it out, but I do feel energized that we have a task at hand and we have something to do. There’s potential there.”
From a purely sonic standpoint, A Short Story about a War is the most aggressive and forward-thinking album Shad has produced, compared to the warmer throwback De La Soul vibes of Flying Colours. With guest appearances from Kaytranada, Lido Pimienta, Eternia and Yukon Blonde, there is as much going on aurally as lyrically, requiring multiple listens to fully appreciate all of its many flavours.
“I wanted it to carry the feelings I wanted people to feel with the album, which to me felt imaginative, apocalyptic, intense, exciting, anxious,” Shad desired. “All that means, for the most part, getting away from the soul samples that I still love, but, for this project, weren’t right… Part of the fun trying to put this together was the task of making it listenable, approachable and manageable somehow, even though it’s dense and intense by nature. I had that idea of interludes going back to the classic hip-hop thing of interludes that feel almost live, like you’re hearing a poet or a storyteller in a room stitching the thing together.”
Hitting the road for his first real tour in years, Shad is excited to reconnect with his fans across the country, to see how his challenging new tunes have resonated. It’s not going to be all doom and gloom, though. He’s going to mix it up.
“This lineup, as far as the musicians and sounds, is kinda why I went away from live bass and live drums because I wanted to at least make everything sonically consistent with the darker sounds that are on the [new] album,” Shad muses, “So that’s why there’s the synth bass and programmed drums. The tricky thing has been incorporating some of this stuff in with the old stuff, and have it make sense altogether… Some of this stuff is going to a different place emotionally, and then I have to make a turn to some of the other material that I want to do, especially live, because people like it. And it’s fun and that’s the energy I want to give people in a live setting, but it can be a hard turn.”
Pushing the aesthetic boundaries of his music and taking the structure and meaning of his lyrics to new heights, A Short Story about a War deserves to be the one to finally claim the Polaris Prize more than anything else he has yet released. In any case, it’s sure to resonate deeply across Canada and beyond.
Shad performs February 18 at the Starlite Room (Edmonton) and February 19 at Commonwealth (Calgary). Shad performs Feb. 21 at Fortune Sound (Vancouver) and Feb. 23 at the Capital Ballroom (Victoria).Capital Ballroom, Commonwealth, Fortune Sound Club, Shad, The Starlite Room