Shad's latest album is called Flying Colours (as in "passing with"), an apt title for a record about pushing yourself, setting big goals -- and the personal satisfaction you feel when those challenges are met.
The now-Vancouver-based MC wasn't content to rest on the success of his last album, 2010's TSOL, which notably beat out Drake for Best Rap Album at the 2011 Juno Awards. No, Shad -- who was born Shardrach Kabango in Kenya to Rwandan parents -- wanted to raise the bar.
"My main goals for this album were to work hard as far as talent and courage go, and really challenge myself in that way," he says, over the phone en route to Michigan. "Having the opportunity to make a new album that people will hear is always really inspiring to me."
Resilience is a theme that runs through Flying Colours. Shad is optimistic; he sees the light in the darkness. This is his most personal -- and arguably most politically charged -- album yet, but it's never cynical.
"There were certain ideas -- concepts of success and failure -- that were swirling around in my head," he says. "I was asking lots of questions about what success looks like and what failure looks like. All that stuff was striking a chord with me. I was trying to push myself to write something meaningful."
Shad has tasted success in his career, to be sure, but dovetailing milestones -- leaving his 20s behind (he's 31) and working on a fourth album -- inspired a great deal of personal reflection. He's at point where he's nailing down who he is, both in life and on record. "Those things factored in for sure," he says. "(The album) is a function of where I'm at in my life. It's poignant for me and it made me want to work hard."
The MC took his time with Flying Colours, working on it for a year-and-a-half.
"That allowed me to take a step back and look at the big picture and reflect on these concepts," he explains. "It gave me the space to reconcile those big concepts and actually get precise with it."
Indeed, precision is a hallmark of Flying Colours, a master class in the power of concise, vivid writing. Shad has always been revered for his wry, observational brand of hip hop, but the new album sees him up his game in both lyrics and flow.
The most striking example is Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins), which lays bare his personal politics and his experience as a newcomer to Canada, growing up in London, Ont., in the 1980s/'90s. It's an important call to arms that challenges Canadians not to get too smug about our station as a multicultural nation and reminds us that we have a lot of work to do.
"That was my hope," he says. "I wanted to put it in real terms and humanize that experience, especially in that third verse, so it's not this abstract concept or value we take pride in. And then there's the responsibility at the bottom, to progress with those values."
Indeed, that third verse stops you in your tracks. Shad raps: "When you're third-world born and first-world formed/Sometimes you feel pride, sometimes you feel torn/See my mother tongue is not what they speak where my mother's from/she moved to London with her husband when her son was one/And one time after Family Ties/ I turned on the news and saw my family die."
He raps about talking to his dad about colonialism and other concepts his young mind had trouble wrapping around. He recalls the advice his father gave him: "Just keep defending the oppressed."
It's all backed a sample from Jay-Z/Kanye West's Otis -- "Not bad, huh, for some immigrants?" -- that has been transformed into an indelible hook.
Fam Jam isn't the only place Jay-Z pops up. Shad borrows the tiniest bit of the hip-hop titan's braggadocio on the string-laded Intro: Lost. "I never thought on the day that I started to write rhymes/that I might climb/and now it's like I/just may be Jay-Z in my lifetime."
Jay-Z has long been a hero of Shad's.
"I've always considered him canonical figure in hip hop," he says. "I've always called on him freely. He's become one of these figures that's bigger than music. Admittedly, he took it too far this year (with Magna Carta Holy Grail, which met with mixed reviews), but as an artist I've always admired him. I consider him to be one of hip hop's greatest wordsmiths."
Shad's likely too modest to consider Jay-Z a peer -- he's a polite Canadian boy, after all -- but he knows he's playing on the same field. Flying Colours is just one of those career-affirming albums. "I felt like I worked as hard as I wanted to work on it," Shad says. "The words, the songs, they really do mean something to me."
And that, by any barometer, is a success.