This review was originally published on TheRoot.com.
Many lament the fact that hip-hop’s BS-to-substance ratio is still relatively high. But here’s some good news: Shad — short for Shadrach Kabango, born in Kenya but raised in London, Ontario, Canada — is a great example of what’s good in hip-hop these days. Add him to a short, but hardly exhaustive, list that could include MCs like Mos Def, J-Live, Invincible and Jean Grae. His third album, TSOL, is literate, optimistic, self-deprecating, and so full of deftly turned phrases and boom bap that you’ll forget that the album is curse-free. You could easily bump this in the car with the kids, enjoy it and not feel like you’re poisoning impressionable minds.
Optimism doesn’t mean that Shad isn’t realistic, and he acknowledges that two songs in, on “Rose Garden.” And he doesn’t shy away from taking responsibility for himself: “If I’m gonna point fingers, better point ‘em at the mirror,” he says in “Lucky 1’s.”
“Keep Shining” is a well-done tribute to women that’s in no way schmaltzy. In it, he points out the thing that hip-hop sorely lacks: more voices of women. “There’s no girls rappin so we only hearin half the truth/What we have to lose — too much/half our youth aren’t represented/The better half of dudes.” He finishes the song by shouting out all the women in his family who influenced and inspired him — Mom, aunts, sister, cousins, Grandma.
Dude’s funny, too. Here’s a chuckle-inducing line: “Maybe I’m not big cuz I don’t blog or twitter …/Dog, I’m bitter … ” from “Yaa I Get It.”
The album reaches its most poignant moment with “At the Same Time,” where Shad talks about feeling two diametrically opposed emotions at once. Perhaps it’s the proximity of the midterm elections and my awareness of the vitriol and fears that those on the right are co-signing that made this first line of the song resonate: “I never laughed and cried at the same time/till I heard a church pray for the death of Obama/and wondered if they knew they share that prayer with Osama.” Indeed. Based on his examples, he’s laughed and cried at the same time more often than maybe he initially thought. Perhaps it’s an indication of the times in which we’re living.
Shad’s TSOL is compelling not because he’s a talented MC — and he is — but because he’s got enough humility to understand that the world doesn’t revolve around him. It’s okay to be realistic and honest, particularly about oneself, yet optimistic about the future and proud of your own accomplishments without being bombastic. We have plenty of hip-hop that keeps it real. Maybe it’s time for more artists to take a page from Shad and look on the bright side.
If this were Twitter, I’d tag this #hope4hiphop.