A relatively surefire way to begin dominating the music industry around the country or the world is to build a rep where you’re at first, and Shad can check that step off of his list. His self-deprecating, socially-aware rhymes have made him stand apart from from other country successes like Drake and Kardinal Offishall, and his last album, 2008’s The Old Prince, garnered nominations for Canada’s Juno Awards and Polaris Music Prize. His new album T.S.O.L. is his first release in the United States, and it shows exactly why he’s such a hit in his home country.
On “Lucky 1s,” Shad proclaims, “I ain’t gotta say ‘real talk,’ ’cause all my talk is.” This theme runs throughout T.S.O.L.‘s entirety. While many emcees seem to build rep by being either exceedingly cocky or self-depreciating, Shad is relatable because he stays engaging without having to commit to one side or the other. His nimble delivery showcases confident inflections when necessary, and a more tempered cadence on songs that are contemplative. Even on songs that aren’t tightly-woven concepts from beginning to end, he alternates between braggadocio and philosophical quips with the same continuity. The first verse of “Rose Garden” deftly advises, “be weary of those cash prizes/same things that float your boat can capsize it,” while the second verse boasts, “I’m King Kong meets Vince Vaughn, and I play like a champion.” Likewise, “Call Waiting (Interlude)” plays like a stream of consciousness about education, poverty, and children, with personal lines like, “that dating game is chess, trying to find a mate/but what they say is harder for a pimp, is harder for a man of faith.”
But when Shad finds a concept to focus in on, the results are even more impressive. Instead of following through with his concepts while adding punchlines haphazardly, he uses his wordplay to further illustrate what he’s already saying. “Telephone” chronicles long-distance relationship woes with a series of telephone similes and metaphors—i.e., “phone tag, hide and seek with the PDA” or “She’s off the hook.” “Good Name” showcases storytelling skills by narrating the origins of his namesake. The triumphant “Keep Shining” salutes women with self-respect and goals; pays homage to different women in Shad’s life; and admits that his opinion is only partially valuable, because more women need to make their own minds heard in hip-hop. This is a considerable upgrade over the close-ended, obligatory “she’s got her own” tracks that permeate the radio these days.
The only potential problem with TSOL that works against it is that it isn’t background music at all. Despite the accessibility of the head-nodding, sample-heavy production that permeates the album, Shad’s lyrics are often so detailed that they’re difficult to pay attention to if the listener is doing anything else, unless the lyrics are memorized so well that they’re rapped along to no matter what. But that’s not a bad thing—because frankly, TSOL is an album that deserves all the attention that it can get.