Music like this is challenging to review. I felt strange after my first listen of Flying Colours. Some songs floored me; others caused a slight indifference. I asked myself, “should I be enjoying this more?” What exactly was I expecting, anyway? This is a man who has a Masters degree in Liberal Studies and has done a Ted Talks presentation. He’s also a musical artist on the cusp of absolutely blowing up.
When I discovered Shad years ago, the London, Ontario native had already released two albums. The beats had a distinctly old sound, and Shad’s clever wordplay and sense of humor instantly set him apart. After his 2010 release, TSOL, beat out Drake for a Juno Award, I hoped his music would garner more attention. The album showcased an evolved version of Shad, more of a musical artist than a rapper. It took time to accustom myself to the change in the beats, but, despite the overall alteration in sound, I was glad to see him developing as an artist and pushing the envelope.
Still, I couldn’t help but notice that I’ve gone back to his first two albums more than TSOL since its release. With Flying Colours, I was hoping for a bit of a return to the sound I had first discovered. I felt a little nervous—I didn’t want to see Shad change too much. His music was already so good, and so many artists produce inferior results when they stray from their regular path which brought them success.
Looking back now, I feel relieved. I also feel pretty stupid for ever having those doubts, which likely stemmed from that over-protective feeling of not wanting to see something you care for be tarnished.
After hearing the first single off Flying Colours, “Stylin’,” featuring Saukrates, it became obvious Shad’s persona was still going to be all over this album. The two Canadians deliver a fun track as Shad raps about being a rapper. The other single, “Fam Jam,” is truly a song for everyone. Shad fuses bits of his family’s history into themes of immigration and the struggles of foreigners, over the album’s most upbeat, danceable melody. As Shad says, “it’s a celebration.” It might seem odd to hear it referred to as that, but that’s who Shad is. He doesn’t complain about the injustices around him. He explores things with a smile on his face and an open mind, always looking to find the good in people and situations, using that to improve himself and his music.
The album’s intro, “Lost,” features K-os, Lisa Lobsinger and Ian Kamau. The varying stages of the song preview the versatility shown over the next 51 minutes. Shad immediately sheds light on what’s on his mind—“I’m still telling my people to let that light shine, I never thought 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.” The guest appearances each bring a unique approach to the track, justifying their place without overshadowing Shad, who remains the star of the show throughout.
“Yall Know Me” takes us further into Shad’s mind, showing a frustrated, yet hopeful side. Over a smooth bassline and periodically wailing electric guitar, Shad raps, “It’s history, never her story, and prophets get crushed, tough topics get hushed, and life is often unjust, I forget…then I remember to remember, the sun is still shining in December.”
Flying Colours cannot be consumed in one sitting while distracted—it must be listened to alone, with headphones on. It’s an album densely packed with deeply personal, complexly structured words and themes that reveal more with each listen. The album is not faultless—some of the production lags behind Shad’s level at times, and one long track in the album’s halfway point, though a fantastic musical achievement, feels a tad heavy and somber in contrast to the rest. As the album’s longest song, I sometimes found myself skipping it.
However, the album closes out even stronger than it starts, with three of its highlights, both lyrically and from a production standpoint. On “Love Means,” following a powerful verse from Eternia, Shad serves up a combination of wisdom, wordplay and thoughtfulness that only he possesses: “I like to write when it’s late and I’m sleep deprived, that’s when I’m more inclined to joke and just speak my mind, as far as what love means, well I can read a line from the 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, givin’ 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.”
Next, “Thank You” sees Shad touching on thoughts of one day hanging up the microphone and assuming the role of an educator. Even though Shad knows how talented he is, he wants more. His success never makes him lazy. Instead, it affirms what he already knows about himself and propels him toward bigger challenges. He lives in a perpetual state of better-than-ever, and never is this clearer than the album’s final track, “Epilogue: Long Jawn.” Shad pummels the listener with an infinitely quotable, almost seven minutes of lyrical prowess—metaphors, similes, double entendres, alliteration, assonance—everything’s on display here.
With this effort, not only has Shad passed with Flying Colours, but he’s graduated to a class of his own. He has carved out a spot as Canada’s most talented, genuine musical artist and one of the industry’s finest poets.