Shad’s straight-up rap has crossover appeal

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      Hip-hop artists sometimes get a bad rap—pun intended!—for profanity-laden lyrics, but Shad is an exception to the stereotype. While he’s quick to point out that painting the whole genre with one brush “ignores a lot of nuance that exists in hip-hop”, he also notes that he prefers to take a wholesome approach to rhyming.

      “My music’s not profane or dirty,” he says, speaking on the phone while visiting family in Toronto. “You can play it around your kids—even if they don’t understand it, you can play it around them.”

      His family-friendly style is one likely reason why Shad—who was born in Kenya, and raised in London, Ontario, and has lived for the past few years in Vancouver—has achieved so much success in recent years. In that time, he’s noticed a trend emerge: even those who typically don’t listen to rap will often make an exception for him.

      He examines this phenomenon on “Stylin’ ”, the Saukrates-featuring lead single from his 2013 album Flying Colours, which features the cheeky lyric “I got fans that say, ‘Oh, hey, Shad, I hate rap but I like you,’ Well I hate that, but I like you, or at least I like that you like me, so I won’t spite you.”

      Reflecting on these lines, the 32-year-old Juno winner notes that songs like “Stylin’ ” are self-referential, and this broadens his appeal by allowing listeners to get a sense of his personality. Furthermore, he speculates that his interest in a wide range of genres gives his music extra crossover appeal.

      “I think there’s something in my sensibility that translates, maybe because I do listen to a lot of different music,” he muses. “Even though what I do is straight-up hip-hop, I think there’s always been something about it that’s accessible and inviting in some way. Which I like—I like music that is empathic or open.”

      Flying Colours is characteristically good-natured and welcoming, but it also delves into a wider range of sounds and moods than the rapper has touched on in the past.

      “Full-lengths are a place where I’m really looking to push myself a little bit—stay within what I do, but push myself,” he reflects. “Whereas when I’m doing one-offs or collaborations, I tend to keep it in my strike zone, where it’s really comfortable and natural. The full-lengths are a time to experiment.”

      The album’s emotional breadth can be heard on “Intro: Lost”, as Shad fires off a string of cocky boasts and declares, “I’m dying, I need to hear someone as ill as me, stat.” Then, a few tracks later, “He Say She Say” is a jazzy, achingly vulnerable portrait of a failing relationship.

      Even the collection’s most upbeat cut, “Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins)”, has an undercurrent of darkness. At first blush, it appears to be a bubbly celebration of diversity, but dig deeper and you’ll find politically charged references to colonialism, exploitation of natural resources, and North American treatment of First Nations peoples.

      This multifaceted perspective gets to the heart of Shad’s artistic vision. He explains simply, “My interests in music have always been making people laugh, making people think.”

      So really, it’s no wonder that he has enjoyed such widespread success, because who wouldn’t like that?

      Shad plays the Squamish Valley Music Festival’s Tantalus Stage next Sunday (August 10).