The term ‘conscious’ has become as much a derogatory term in hip-hop as a blanket descriptor for any and all backpacker, positive and gunshot-free rap artists. But when you get to the root of the word, it’s pretty meaningless. If you’re conscious, you’re awake, and even a decidedly conscientiously ambivalent figure as Rick Ross still rolls out of bed each morning and rolls one up. But “conscious” hip-hop, meaning socially conscious heads, have become derided for being either too preachy or too corny. And then there’s the rare case of Common, who’s not only preachy and corny, but contradictory to the point of blending misogyny and granola on the same album.
Kenyan-born, Canadian-bred Shadrach Kabango, aka Shad, takes consciousness to another level by seemingly understanding precisely these pitfalls that afflict positive emcees in a post-Rawkus world. To be sure, Shad is as positive as they come, contemplative, introspective and celebratory. But he’s also fun and relatable enough not to come across like a standoffish liberal arts student in a Che Guevara t-shirt. Instead, he’s a warm and accessible kind of emcee, clever and engaging in his rhymes but with a playful approach. He’s not trying to lecture, he’s here to entertain.
Shad’s third album, TSOL, balances Shad’s everyman image with a series of fierce beats and Kabango’s own unstoppable delivery. His tracks range from the soulful and energetic “Rose Garden” to the laid back “Lucky 1’s” (featuring Broken Social Scene’s Brendan Canning of all people) and the propulsive single, “Yaa I Get It,” yet Shad’s own verses always seem super-charged, even over the most chill beats. Yet the strange contradiction is that, even though he’s spitting lyrics at high speeds, he maintains a perpetually easy and chill mood. Think the cool, hangout vibe of recent Q-Tip, or yes, Common, albeit without the bullshit posturing.
Part of what allows this chill vibe to permeate the tracks on TSOL is Shad’s own humble, and for that matter, quite likable personality. He contemplates the easy road while pushing himself farther on “Rose Garden,” ruminating “Sometimes I just wanna play some shows/ make some dough/ take it home/ lay in my bed and stay in my safety zone/ but Cee-Lo said it best/ I know too much and I owe too much to let it rest.” On “Keep Shining” he does one better in the respect game, admitting “I talk to women/ I just can’t talk for women/ that’s for you/ We need women for that… more women in rap.” And in the same song he even casts his own cynical eye on the ‘conscious’ tip, lamenting “It’s funny how words like ‘consciousness’ and ‘positive music’ can start to sound hollow.”
When Shad turns a bit self-deprecating on “Yaa I Get It,” he’s even more charming, dropping lines like “I hope I ain’t borin’ y’all rappin’ about rap/ but the only thing I love more than rappin’ is nappin’/ And I know nobody wanna hear me rap about that.” Of course, there’s nothing boring about TSOL. Shad keeps it breezy on the album, cooking up a perfect barbecue soundtrack, even if grilling season is long behind us. More importantly, TSOL is a thoroughly enjoyable, effortless kind of hip-hop gem, the kind that sounds great in any season.
Video: “Rose Garden”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.