Shad - Flying Colours | Album Review | By Volume

Understand that I am only as he made me: a faithful servant to all of the noise, all of the lights, all of the flashing in my head. Laura Stevenson - Wheel


Flying Colours

He’s just spittin’ that for the love of spittin’ rap.

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Author: on November 7, 2013
Black Box
October 15, 2013

In Shad’s recent track-by-track interview with CBC’s George Stroumboulopolous, he briefly talks about the lessons he learned from his first ever rap battle. Thinking that pure skill was the deciding factor, Shad came prepared with technical rap, only to be bested by a likable opponent and his simple jokes about Shad’s hat. He had a realization at that point: “I don’t have to beat this guy, I just have to get the crowd to like me more, which is an entirely different thing.” As his legitimate rap career began to form, the lessons he learned carried over and his recorded material has always focused on his likability (which he has in abundance, just for the record). Dating back to his 2006 debut album When This Is Over, his music has always been built around his playful attitude. Flying Colours, Shad’s fourth full-length album, presents the quintessence of this laid-back character. On lead single ‘Stylin’ he epitomizes this attitude as he light-heartedly boasts:Running like a Kenyan cause I’m Kenyan (ask my Mama) / running like a Kenyan / yeah I’m running like Obama on that ticket. / this is wicked as that Broadway play with the witches in it / tell me who’s the sickest, kid I’m putting on a clinic, listen.”  It’s non-offensive and easy-going with some subtle bragging, like most of the lyrics on this album. Shad portrays this playful character often, the likable jokester who wins rap battles by poking harmless fun, and this is what is most likely to draw listeners in.

But Flying Colours gets deep with its content as well, especially on the more drawn-out, introspective tracks. Amidst all the jokes and one-liners, Shad has the ability to catch listeners off-guard with touching self-examination and philosophizing, like on the breathtaking “Love Means” where he struggles to find a definition for love that applies to his life. The stage is set wonderfully by Eternia’s guest verse, in which she disparages our standard definitions of monogamous love. This particularly powerful line from her verse is worth mentioning: “It seems to me polyamory beckons / and I get it: I get how you could love her and me / love never claimed exclusivity, it is free.” From here, Shad begins to explore his thoughts and attempts to define love in his own way: “As far as what love means, well I can read a line from a dictionary but I think I need to redefine / I need to live it to know it / that means I gotta give it and let it be given back to grow it. / I gotta sow it to get it, like really get it I gotta show it, not just talk about it like a lot of poets, AKA moi. / you see my day job’s talking this romantic, philosophic je ne sais quoi. ” By the third verse, Shad seems to have arrived at the most tangible conclusion possible, given the circumstances, and presents a beautifully succinct and brave characterisation of his version of true love: “sometimes we all feel motherless above the grave. / but it’s in death and new life when love is made. / it’s when you’re unashamed and finally unafraid when you confront the pain. / face death and you’ll see only love remains. ” It’s a truly thought-provoking piece that displays Shad’s ability to expand on the character he presents ninety-percent of the time: the playful rap battle specialist. He draws listeners in with his undeniable charm, but keeps them coming back with clever and conscious lyricism.

It’s quite a unique album in this respect, in the way that it walks the line between his exuberant and serious personas, but it stands out for so much more than that. The production on this album sets it apart from others within the genre through its combination of flourishing soundscapes (glorious strings, lush textures, soaring melodies), with an almost indie-rock kind of approach on certain tracks (guitar riffs, toe-tapping drums). It’s worth noting here, that among the list of samples Shad and his team could not afford to clear, “He Say She Say” was allegedly meant to contain a clip from a Radiohead song. Sticking with this album sounds (but conveniently bringing me back to Shad’s rapping, oh I do go on), another defining characteristic of this album is his dynamic and addictive flow. He seems to effortlessly switch up his rhythm, speed, or delivery from verse to verse, line to line. Everything about it is distinctly his own, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that he’s perfected his brand, and that’s where a large amount of his appeal comes from.

But perhaps the most unique thing about Shad, with respect to his music and how it is different to the majority of otherwise similar artists, is his personal history. Born in Kenya to Rwandan parents, Shad was moved to Canada at the age of one and was raised in London, Ontario. He talks of his childhood, learning about the troubles in Kenya and his lack of ability to understand them, like on “Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins)”: “And one time after Family Ties I turned on the news and saw my family die. (why?) / Pops said there’s murder in the motherland, and things about colonialism I didn’t understand.” It doesn’t quite align with the more common narrative of most hip-hop artists, the American inner-city urban kind of vibe, but his social commentary arrives at similar conclusions to other artists with a more familiar backstory (familiar in terms of “standard” hip-hop narratives). Another notable run of lyrics in a similar vein to the one just mentioned, but not dealing directly with Shad’s specific history and hence more instantly relatable for a large portion of his audience, comes at the end of the superb second verse from “Stylin” (incidentally, some of the most technically impressive rapping on the album): “ …use your common sense, matter of fact use Common Sense / for that matter use Ice Cube, hmm? / don’t think that we nice too, hmm? / cause we don’t look like you? / cause we don’t know how to tie ties and our grandparents weren’t tycoons? / please, lemme finish my Thai food.” As a general statement about Flying Colours lyrically, I will say that it is empowering music about oppression and the will of the human spirit to rise up and defeat it. It looks to inspire with hopeful mantras and motivating lyricism. A lyric that instantly stuck out when I first heard the album was one by featured artist Ian Kamau; though it is delivered by a guest, it exemplifies the sort of hopeful yearning that bursts forth from a lot of Shad’s creations. “I just wanna climb trees, so I plant seeds,” Kamau confides on the album’s opening track, and this simple yet beautiful lyric is recalled several times on later songs. Shad has worked hard to achieve success and happiness in his life, and he is always mindful of this in his message, looking to pass on any wisdom he has gained.

Now thirty-one-years-old with a master’s degree in Liberal Studies, four full-length albums, and a Juno award to his name, Flying Colours is the work of a man who seems to be less focused on a burning desire to be the greatest rapper ever and more content to simply exist at this moment in time. He is a truly fascinating individual, both as an artist andand simply as a human, and as such, his rap career is strangely almost incidental to who he is as a person. Though his talents and consistency are undeniable, his flow distinct, and his lyricism in a league of its own, he doesn’t let his rap career define him. He often talks about the mentality that he goes into every release with: the realization that this may be his last album. He starts “Epilogue” by speaking to this point, declaring “but really I’m sick of rapping / but really I miss the passion”, later expanding on this with: “but just cause I love it, it’s not my ID. / I mean I’m wrapped in these rhyme schemes. And I rap to define me, but it doesn’t define me. / trust that I’ll be fine when the shine leaves.” This seems to be intentionally, directly contradictory to a lyric from the album’s intro in which Shad sets his sights for the greats, musing: “I never thought that on the day I started to write rhymes that I might climb, and now it’s like I just may be Jay-Z in my lifetime.” His fans will forever have to live with the fear that, someday soon, Shad may casually announce his retirement from the rap game, and his most recent album we become his final statement. Perhaps that’s why he always makes sure to release the absolute best possible product to his fans, and Flying Colours is certainly that. It’s light-hearted and playful, but with an air of confidence and intermittent flashes of introspective brilliance. Great care was taken to create this album, from the flowing, plush soundscapes, to the well-placed guest spots, to Shad’s clever lyrics and ear-catching flow. While the Canadian-raised emcee nonchalantly considers his future in the music industry, not rushing to decide when or if he will release more material, his fans can cling to Flying Colours as his best album yet, but hopefully not his last.

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