Flying Colours, Shad‘s fourth full-length, is another satisfying collection of thoughtful raps and moments of deft wordplay from the Canadian rapper, who, with the help of guest artists like k-os, explores themes of artistic success and failure in this album, hence the title Flying Colours. Shad also looks at immigrant success in “Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins),” the album’s second single. Thanks mostly to the behind-the-boards work of frequent collaborator Skratch Bastid and an ill bass line that teeters between Latin and West Indian, “Fam Jam” is a catchy celebration of immigrants of all colors in Canada, from Shad‘s Rwandan parents to folks from India (“Folks that know the game, not in class to clown/Had the funny accent, look who’s laughing now”).
What I particularly like about the “Fam Jam” lyrics is Shad‘s other purpose in the track, which, as he told HuffPost Canada, was to say, “Let’s not rest on our laurels.” “Fam Jam” is also a call for more to be done to make life easier for future immigrants (“Don’t turn away the stateless, think of the waste/If one in three refugees is a Lauryn Hill”).
Top it off with a well-chosen Jay Z sample hook and you have another tuneful banger along the lines of 2010’s “Rose Garden,” which was produced by returning beatmaker DJ T Lo, as well as one of many highlights of Flying Colours. Good thing Shad and Skratch Bastid sampled one of Hov’s verses from the enjoyable “Otis” instead of Hov’s really imaginative “Cake cake cake cake cake cake” verse from Drake’s “Pound Cake.”
Money is an empty pursuit to this indie artist who rapped about preferring to live modestly in 2009’s “The Old Prince Still Lives at Home” and observed that “Fools wanna make stars instead of music that’s smart or special/Because art at a level that’s real can be harder to peddle” in “I Heard You Had a Voice Like an Angel.” But the preference for art over commerce can also make relationships difficult, and in the wistful Flying Colours track “He Say She Say,” Shad looks at how a relationship—presumably based on one from his past—falls apart due to the couple’s disagreements over matters like making a living in music.
“He Say She Say” could have been a real bummer to listen to and a slog—like most of the struggling-musicians-torn-between-art-and-commerce storylines were on Treme (sorry, Wendell Pierce, even though you did your damnedest to liven them up)—but the track is concise and beautifully composed (dig the piano and trumpet work). Also, Shad injects “He Say She Say” with levity by loading it with something in hip-hop that always catches my ear because of my on-and-off relationship with the world of Starfleet: Star Trek references, mostly clever (“Get the guap, prosper and live long”), while one falls flat due to a malapropism (he mistakenly refers to Deanna Troi as “Diana Troi”).
The Trek-centric bars aren’t as random and pointless as a Family Guy cutaway gag; Trek is nicely used by Shad, who once joked about being “the black Captain Picard,” to illuminate the differences in maturity level between the man and woman, who’s tired of hearing about “Star Wars, whatever, Star Trek” and putting up with his inability to “cook a bowl of cereal.” Female listeners might particularly like “He Say She Say” because of Shad‘s self-awareness. He doesn’t let himself off the hook here and implies that had he been a little more mature and less like—to use an example from one of my favorite Spike Lee joints—the jazz musician dad in Crooklyn (whose stubbornness about keeping it real and not taking higher-paying music gigs costs his brownstone its electricity and pisses off both his wife and his tenants), maybe the relationship wouldn’t have imploded like planet Vulcan. The tension between art and commerce that Shad raises questions about during Flying Colours is a hell of a lot more interesting than “Cake cake cake cake cake cake.”
The production work on “He Say She Say” and other Flying Colours cuts like “Intro: Lost,” “Love Means” and “Thank You” is noteworthy for its orchestral flourishes, a great accompaniment to Shad‘s thoughtful verses. Speaking of thoughtfulness, Shad saves the best for last, the nearly seven-minute, stream-of-consciousness “Epilogue: Long Jawn,” where he speculates on life after a recording career and spits witty bar after witty bar (he also leaves in a couple of recording bloopers along the way). “I rap to define me, but rap doesn’t define me,” he says at one point in “Long Jawn.” Shad has got bars for days. He’s like The World’s End times infinity.