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Shad’s ‘Flying Colours’ loses momentum

File photo
File photo

Shad has always had a flare for quiet and ornate production, using plenty of acoustic and electric instrumentation in addition to sampling and synths. Unapologetically emotional and a tad corny, the tracks he lays down are a perfect match for his raps, which are sincere to a fault and unrelentingly optimistic.

On the other hand, on his last album, “TSOL,” the Canadian artist showed a skillful grasp of pacing and sequencing tracks so there was never a dull moment. Though that album was often joyous as well as skillfully executed, Shad’s efforts this time around have produced a much less satisfying work, albeit one with many enjoyable moments.

Shad is often associated with “socially conscious” hip-hop that is ostensibly separated from the mainstream of the industry by its focus on confronting political injustice and avoiding the indulgent exploitation that often characterizes popular conceptions of rap music.

Some artists have resented this label, including perhaps its most prominent example, Talib Kweli, who repudiated it by titling his latest album “Prisoner of Conscious.”

At this point in time, conscious rap has been recognized as often grating the ears with witless preaching. Shad tends to write lyrics that split the difference between introspection and social commentary, eschewing irony and frequent subtlety for complicated lyrical devices that strive to be authentic rather than detached.

Fortunately, that approach carries the album through its first half with strong momentum. While the opening track ,“Intro: Lost,” stumbles into sentimentality in its latter half, subsequent tracks like “Y’all Know Me,” “Dreams” and “Stylin’” present Shad at his best.

Technically adept on the mic and marshaling skillful production — especially on the R&B-driven “Y’all Know Me” — he progresses into new territory while remaining within his recognizable and likable persona. “Stylin’” was released as the first single for the album, and it is also easily the best track on the record.

Built around a hook by fellow introspective Canadian rapper and singer Saukrates, the album features some ego-puncturing jokes at the expense of Shad’s more pretentious white fans.

Because he normally presents a rather affable persona, the jokes land with an acute force, revealing himself to be clever in pride as well as humility. After all, he did earn a master’s degree the same week he earned the Juno (Canadian music award) for best rap recording.

Unfortunately, the most experimental and intriguing track on the album — the long, contemplative “Progress” — proves to be the record’s undoing. Starting with a stark silence over which Shad sings a cover of “American Pie,” the track unwinds over seven minutes and often more resembles a rock track than a hip-hop song.

While it works well enough by itself, and represents a possibly fruitful new direction for the rapper’s music, it kills all of “Flying Colours’” momentum.

Despite the admirable plea for gratitude that is “Remember to Remember,” the punishing sprawl that came before it and the stumbling “Love Means” and “Thank You” that follow weigh down the album beyond repair.

Shad is best, and most effective as an activist as well as a rapper, when combining his social insights with a spryness that he lacks on these tracks. The latter, layered down with strings and piano lines, progresses at a slow clip and never does anything other than restate what he has already articulated better on this album or previously in his career.

By the time the stream-of-consciousness minimalism of “Epilogue: Long Jawn” rolls around to clear the air, I was thoroughly dispirited by “Flying Colours.” Shad has proven that he is just as prone to fall into the pitfalls of political rap as to climb its peaks.

His technique is impeccable even if his lyrics disappoint, and the production team gives him some material that pushes him in new directions, but the overall product is marred by its latter half.

There is no question that Shad has a unique voice, but this album is a prime example of how even an intelligent and tasteful artist can falter at key moments. Definitely pick this one up, but your mileage on the second half may vary.

About the Author

Jonathan Hielkema

Jonathan Hielkema is a Chimes staff writer for Chimes for the 2013-2014 school year. He prefers to write about any and all of his main interests, which include jazz music, leftist politics, religion, film and gadgets. He is a history major and a Japanese minor and plans to pursue a graduate school degree after graduation. Anything to keep him writing.

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