Why Shad Should Win The Polaris Prize

Photo by Justin Broadbent
Photo by Justin Broadbent

by Laura Stanley

“Tough topics get hushed and life is often unjust.” – “Y’all Know Me”

Shadrach Kabango aka Shad K. aka Shad, is no stranger to the Polaris Music Prize. After co-hosting the gala with Kathleen Edwards in 2013, and this being his third time on the short list, it seems only fair to call Shad a Polaris Prize veteran. But like Jon Hamm and the Emmy and Leonardo DiCaprio and the Oscar, Shad has never won his chosen prize.

As Shad’s third nomination, The Old Prince and TSOL were nominated for the prize in 2008 and 2010 respectively, Flying Colours is the brightest jewel in the old prince’s crown. It’s finally enough to push Shad out of the Polaris Prize’s “friend-zone” and into official, because let’s be honest, he is already a champ, winner status.

Without getting too much into the Shad vs. Drake argument, Shad is the most important rapper in Canada right now. In boundless brilliance, Shad covers such topics as love, loss, politics (both national and local), race, class, and other socially pertinent issues. And that’s often just in one song. Unlike the line from “Y’all Know Me” as noted above, Flying Colours does not conceal the difficult truths in life but rather shines a light on the unfair nature of the world.

Shad fits in with the rich intellectual traditions of the hip-hop/rap genres and stands alongside great Canadian songwriters at large. His lyrical prowess is one that is rarely matched in contemporary Canadian music.

“Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins)” is one of the numerous stars of the record but just one small part of the emphatic enterprise that is Flying Colours. The richness of the song is timeless. From the line, “the Natives probably relate more to immigration” and “to the guys that draw lines and make the borders real but then bend the rules when there’s more to drill,” “Fam Jam” is a politically charged narrative of an immigrant experience. In an incredible feat, the flaws in the state’s toted ideas of Canada’s “inclusivity” as a multicultural nation are deconstructed in a three and a half minute jam.

For one of the more somber moments of the record, “He Say She Say” is a poignant love story for the digital age. With ease, Shad transitions from an up-tempo track that connects his political statement with the musical appeals of the mainstream, to a song that adheres to the hearts of those who struggle to follow their dreams in a limiting relationship. In a strong and mournful interpersonal moment, the hook of the song is a repetition of the simple line, “then I wanted to do a verse about how they worked it out but…”

Not his final note on the subject, in “Love Means” Shad speaks of the universality of love for more socially relevant commentary:  

“So love is costly but love can save and I’m of the faith
But ‘love your neighbour’ isn’t a Christian or Muslim phrase
No one owns it as some brothers claim.
From the pulpit or from the stage and in the coming age
I hope we’ll see it as gay, straight, and colourless.”

Oozing with confidence, in “Stylin” (featuring Saukrates) Shad addresses a problem that he, as one of the most accessible rappers in the country, often comes across: the uncertain rap fan. By tackling the underlying (or perhaps not so underlying) racism that’s attached to this, in a hilariously deadpan voice, Shad mimics, “you’re sly dog, and you’re from Africa, right? That’s amazing. That’s really great, fascinating.” Before saying, “See, I got fans that say, ‘Oh hey Shad, I hate rap but I like you,’ well I hate that, but I like you…so I won’t spite you, it’s not your fault you’re a white dude who likes white music I like too, just don’t be surprised by my IQ.”

Alright, so he can write. But can he rap?

Although it’s not really a problem per se, the lyrical skills of Shad often overshadows his musical aptness. As the other half of why Flying Colours truly soars, Shad’s deliverance ranges from subtle to powerful to assertive, varying at all the right points, but always done in a smooth, fast-talking, lyrical manner that makes all of this subject matter go down easy.

Rather than it being exhaustive or a complex narration, Shad allows you to be part of his creation. Shad and the record’s numerous contributors produce artistically complex (“Intro: Lost” featuring Lisa Lobsinger, Kamau & K-OS), instrumentally layered (“Dreams”) and genre bending (“Remember To Remember” featuring Lights) songs. The seven plus minute epic “Progress (Part 1: American Pie, Part 2: The Future is Here),” is the most musically complex as it builds from raw verses inspired by Don McLean’s “American Pie,” to multi-synth beat backed intensity, to finally the, surprisingly, sung, acoustic guitar centred part two of the song.

Time and time again, Shad proves that he produces compelling recordings. Flying Colours comes at an intense political climate around the world where it’s more evident than ever that history does not remain in the past and we should not be static beings. Flying Colours is a small summary of the present and should be honoured accordingly.

Will the third time be the charm for Shad?

It’s time, Polaris jurors. It’s time.

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