[Review] Shad – “Flying Colours”

It’s been three years since Shad’s last full-length offering (2010’s TSOL), and Shad’s had plenty of things in the meantime to write about. From winning a Juno Award to completing his Master’s Degree, this is the first time in Shad’s career that he’s found himself with a certain level of expectations and nothing to focus on but the music. It’s a challenging position for any artist to be in: how do you top your previous work if it won Best Rap Album – beating Drake, no less? In the midst of this situation, Shad responds with Flying Colours, a twelve-track offering that may very well be his most brilliant, thoughtful work yet. We were fortunate enough to get an advanced listen of Flying Colours and really take it in over the past several weeks. Read the track-by-track review below and pick up Flying Colours on October 15th.

1. Intro: “Lost” feat. Lisa Lobsinger, Kamau and K-OS
The album makes an immediate impression with “Lost” – which fans will pick up on as a clever nod to Shad’s previous album, TSOL. The track is a definite personal favourite off of Flying Colours. “Lost” is a scattered, everywhere-at-once feeling track laced with booming drums, uplifting strings, and a million other sounds that aren’t immediately noticeable until further listens. ‘Scattered’ may sound like a negative against the song, but it’s not – it’s aural bombardment in the best sense. Lisa Lobsinger is here, rejoining Shad after her starring role in “Rose Garden”, and Kamau and K-OS appear too – the former of whom provides one of the best verses on the entire album. Shad’s opening lines Flying Colours: “Warmest wishes to those who chose to visit the show.”

2. “Yall Know Me” feat. Ebrahim
Next up is “Yall Know Me”, a head-nodding journey over banging drums and an infectious bass guitar arrangement. Ebrahim lends his soulful vocals to this one, as Shad covers a number of topics, spanning race, class, faith, and gender inequality, often in the same breath. Shad raps, “Rememberin’ the saint that remembered we’re all sinners/ Let my people go… (ahh, Pharaoh’s talkin to us)/ Rosa’s still seated, saying ‘please don’t get off of the bus’/ It’s history, never her-story, and prophets get crushed/ Tough topics gets hushed, and life is often unjust/ I forget… but I remember to remember/ On the darkest days, the sun is still shining in December.”

3. “Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins)”

Here, Shad flips Jay Z’s “Otis” quotable into a full-on chorus, expanding on the idea and digging into the experience of first-generation immigrants as well as First Nations in Canada. It’s clever; it’s catchy; and it makes some really good points: “To the guys that draw lines and make borders real/ But then bend the rules when there’s more to drill/ Don’t turn away the stateless, think of the waste/ If one in three refugees is a Lauryn Hill.” Another interesting fact about the song is that it samples an old African folk song that used to get played whenever Shad’s family got together. Here’s what Shad had to say about the track:

“Working on Flying Colours in the city of Toronto offered a daily reminder of the diversity of stories in our midst. This diversity is often and rightly celebrated, but the innumerable stories that comprise our treasured multiculturalism here in Canada can also hold a lot pain, as well as some complicated questions around what it means to succeed, and what it means to belong. As I started writing and reflecting on the different joys and struggles within our stories, I was reminded of the community parties we had with other families who arrived in London, On from East Africa when I was growing up. I thought about the fun we had as kids and the various difficulties that our families encountered over the years. I wanted to make something to celebrate some of that; a throwback to our old fam jams, and a toast to the trials and triumphs of many.” – Shad

Shad at Call The Office

4. “He Say She Say”
This track continues in the vein of TSOL‘s “Telephone” and The Old Prince‘s “Out of Love (Part 2)”. Over melancholy horns and beautiful keys, Shad tells the story of a relationship through the lens of both men and women. Shad raps, “She says, ‘it’s different for a girl turning thirty’/ He says, ‘is that a crack about me not maturing?/ ‘Cause I’m just deferring the term, I’ll be back in the spring/ I’m just waiting for my break, got the cast and the sling’/ He says, ‘the queen is the back of her king’/ But she’s mad at her lack of a ring…” It’s the story of two thirtysomethings and all of their insecurities as they struggle to make things work.

5. “Dreams”
“Dreams” picks up where “He Say She Say” left off, opening with a somber string section over dark drums and another beautiful piano arrangement. On “Dreams”, Shad raps about the incredible emotional highs and lows that come in the music industry: “Grow up, achieve, succeed/ You know that you’ve arrived when you always gotta leave/ And you’re up all night ’cause you’re living all your dreams […] We think ’til we’re emotional and drink until we’re sociable again/ This whole century’s sensory overload…” Everything isn’t all roses, and that can be a tough pill to swallow.

6. “Grace” (Interlude)
At this point, Shad opts for an interlude, giving the listener a break to sit and digest all of the lyrics they’ve been hit with over the past five songs – and there have been a lot of them. “Grace” is laced with pensive strings and understated bells, and in a way, it acts as a palate cleanser, getting the listener ready for the second half of the album.

7. “Stylin” feat. Saukrates

So far on Flying Colours, Shad has given the listener a lot to think about. It’s thoughtful; it’s challenging; and it’s heartfelt – and it’s good. Still, it demands a lot of the listener’s attention to fully grasp and absorb everything they’ve been presented with. This, on the other hand, is simply Shad “spittin’ that for the love of spittin’ rap.” It acts as a message: in case you forgot, dude’s got bars, and he flexes them here. Saukrates – one of the most multi-talented, underrated Canadian hip-hop acts of all time – lends his vocals to the chorus on this one, as Shad goes into full-on lyrical assault. By the time the song’s over, the listener’s ready to go in deep again…

8. “Progress (Part 1: American Pie, Part 2: The Future is Here)”
…And it doesn’t get much deeper than this. “Progress” is by far the longest track on the album (okay, “Long Jawn” comes close), and it’s split into two parts: “American Pie” and “The Future is Here”. “American Pie” begins as a spoken word piece, as Shad raps about “the night the music died.” As the message gets more and more urgent, the strings crescendo and the drums blare. Shad raps, “I don’t mean to speak this real, but like, damn/ I don’t mean to sound depressed, but I am […] A storm’s brewing, I can feel something’s not right.” Then, just when it seems like all hope is lost, something amazing happens. The tune shifts, guitar chords come in, and the song transitions to “The Future is Here”. The message still isn’t outright hopeful and there’s no sense of resolution, but the tone has changed.

9. “Remember To Remember” feat. Lights
After “Progress”, “Remember To Remember” acts as a call-to-arms of sorts. This was the first song Shad started working on for the album and the last song he finished. The phrase is repeated several times throughout the album, and here Shad delves deeper into the meaning behind it: “We all struggle for freedom instead of letting ourselves be/ and it never ends, we only feel better when we feel like we’re better than […] We were all just born inside of this truth/ Taught to shoot as youth, taught it’s just humans being human/ But the truth is, the truth is bulletproof. Remember to remember.” The talented Lights lends her vocals to the chorus on this one, and if you listen closely, you’ll be able to pick out the layers of vocals laid down by Mike Tompkins that provide the backdrop.

Shad at Call The Office

10. “Love Means” feat. Eternia
This one’s a strong contender for my favourite track off the album, and it was the one I was most looking forward to since first seeing the track listing. By the time the strings rise and the drums come in, the mood has lifted following “Progress” and “Remember to Remember”. Eternia drops an incredible first verse, which Shad follows up with two of his own, as they explore what love means, and what it means not to have all the answers. Shad raps, “Some things we’re too in to figure out/ I’m just trying to be fine with not knowing it all […] 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 given back to grow it/ I gotta sow it to get it – like really get it – I gotta grow it/ Not just talk about it, like a lot of poets.”

11. “Thank You”
This serves as the official ‘last song’ on Flying Colours, bringing the past 40-odd minutes to a close with a moment of gratitude. Shad’s mentioned how he treats every album like it could be his last, and that feeling definitely comes through here. Over understated drums and an incredible string arrangement, Shad raps, “After all the turmoil and tests/ The heat broiling, the sweet toil and sweat/ I might hang up this b-boying and step/ To a chalkboard, or take a seat poised at a desk/ Still talking to youth, still talking it through/ This act, when I black Christopher Walk-in the booth/ Droppin’ some truth that I’ve picked off of this route/ I’m travelling many times, I’ve gotten lost in pursuit.” This one’s another definite contender for my favourite song off the album.

12. Epilogue: “Long Jawn”

If you’ve been up to date on Shad’s YouTube game, you’ll recognize “Long Jawn” as the above verse, albeit over original production. On that note, if you recognize the verse, you’ll know that it would be impossible for me to pick out one rhyme to write about here – after all, we’re talking seven minutes of nonstop bars. It’s a lighthearted way to close the album and bring everything together.

As a whole, Flying Colours manages to succeed in a very difficult task: examining and critiquing some tough topics while maintaining a sense of hope and positivity throughout. If The Old Prince was Shad being as honest in his songwriting as possible, and TSOL was Shad honing his technical song crafting ability, then his latest work is a fusion of the two. The honesty is there, the rhymes are there, the sound is polished, and yet Shad also succeeds in experimenting further in terms of song structure: from the minute-long “Grace” to the seven-minute “Progress”, to the irregular pattern of “Dreams”. Perhaps the greatest measure of its value is this: I’ve been listening to this for three weeks straight, and I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon. With each listen, I discover something new. That, more than anything, is the greatest achievement an artist can strive for.