If Shad struggled with one thing while conceiving his powerfully thought-provoking album A Short Story About a War, it was accepting that he didn’t need to make every day a little better for those around him. So when he began working on two records at the same time—one decidedly lighter in tone than the other, which turns a microscope on our troubled times—he had a decision to make.
“I was a little reluctant to take it [A Short Story About a War] on,” the famously affable rapper says, reached on his cellphone in his hometown of Toronto. “I kind of wanted to do something very much the opposite in tone. For one thing, I like to make people feel good—that’s kind of my instinct. So when I started on the two batches of songs, one of them was chasing that feeling where I want to give people a good feeling. The other was making songs around a concept that started to come together with more clarity and a real sense of purpose.
“A month into the recording,” Shad continues, “I had a handful of songs in each category. The ones I was making for this album felt really meaningful and the others didn’t. So it became ‘Well, this is what I have to give, I guess—not what I want to, but instead what I have to.’ ”
What the 36-year-old came up with is a complex and deeply rewarding record that asks big questions about the world we’re living in today. Shad uses recurring characters—including the Snipers, the Fool, and the Stone Throwers—to examine a wide range of issues, including greed, fear, intolerance, inner-city violence, war, racism, and economic injustice.
Because of the endless insanity going on south of the border, the temptation is to see A Short Story About a War as a reaction to a period that’s being shaped by a certain Donald J. Trump. But the idea for the album surfaced long before Make America Great Again baseball caps became a symbol of everything that’s wrong with humankind. Shad was living in Vancouver—in the middle of Vancouver’s famously diverse Commercial Drive neighbourhood—when the spark for A Short Story About a War came to him.
“I love that neighbourhood, but it’s one where tensions are pretty palpable,” he says. “That’s because you kind of have everyone there. You have your middle-class renters, people that own entire blocks, people that live on the street. So you live with the tension of all these different people trying to coexist and trying to survive. I remember sitting there and doing my writing, and then this image kind of popped into my mind of a war with all these different characters. It was a situation where all the different meanings became apparent to me right away, even though it was kind of a bizarre picture.”
What stands out on the album is how he doesn’t pretend there are easy, black-and-white answers. “The Revolution/The Establishment”, for example, starts out with Shad speaking for progressives (“Watch ’em masters of war/These fat cats cash in tax free on the backs of the poor masses”) and then ends with him switching perspectives to those making weapons simply because it’s their job (“We make rules but we don’t make war/We don’t endorse or advocate using force”).
“The Stone Throwers (Gone in a Blink)” features lyrics such as “Vilified by all sides/Vilified for small crimes/Forced to go blow for blow/In a war zone with only stones to throw,” putting Shad in the shoes of those usually portrayed on the news as desperate radicals on the fringes of collapsing societies. And with “The Fool Pt. 3 (Frame of Mind)” and lines like “Who is at the end of my search/It’s me,” he suggests that the only place where one might start to make sense of it all is within.
“The whole concept of the record is what I was wrestling in my own head and my own heart,” Shad says. “It’s like, ‘Wow—peace really is difficult, and there are so many different kinds of violence. So how can we untangle it, and how can we overcome our fear of each other? Why do we have so much fear of each other, not just in a political sense, but also on an interpersonal level?’ ”
Binding these characters together is Shad’s profound sense of empathy. Even when he’s at his angriest on A Short Story About a War, he’s never without hope for a better tomorrow. That sense of optimism also bleeds through the music, which swings from modernly minimalist to menacingly old-school while drawing beautifully on throwback jazz, heavenly soul, and soft-focus R&B.
“I wanted the record to be exciting to listen to,” Shad says. “It was like, ‘If this is what I’m going to do, at least let me make it interesting and not a downer,’ because the last thing that the world needs is another downer.”
And the key to not getting too down? For all the tough questions he asks on A Short Story About a War, it’s maybe reverting to the idea of making the world a bit better, starting with those around him.
“I get burned-out sometimes with all this stuff we see on the news,” he admits. “That’s when I have to turn off and focus on what I can do and what I can contribute—to remember what my life actually is. To think about people and how I treat them and the people that I am responsible to. It’s important. The people around you is where your life really takes place.”
Shad plays the Squamish Constellation Festival’s Creative BC Stage at 7:35 p.m. on Saturday (July 27). For more information, check the website.