This week is Shad week in Hamilton; the JUNO Award-winning rapper will be playing a sold out show at Mills Hardware on Saturday and on Thursday will taking part in a Q + A at Eucharist Church (130 Victoria Ave N) where he will be discussing his newest album A Short Story About A War. These two events work perfectly with one another because Shad’s newest album is unlike any of his previous work. It’s a piece that needs context. A Short Story About A War is a concept album and in an effort to help you understand the album, I would like to set you up with all you need to know about this record.
However, before we get in to how to listen to this album, I’d like for you to indulge me with a personal story on why you should listen to this album.
The first time I met Shad my body was crumbling from the inside. It was one of the moments in life where you cease to actually be yourself and you become an actor playing the role of you. During our conversation I wasn’t speaking as much words were just tumbling out of my mouth. This was me doing my best impression of a person having a real conversation. The thing is Shad’s art meant (means) everything to me. Shad has always been my answer to the question “Who is your favourite rapper?” My first ever concert was a Shad show at the Casbah in Hamilton, Ontario. The first day we met, Shad was flying under the radar in my friend Kevin’s backyard on a Sunday afternoon. Some people may not have been overly impressed that he was there but to me he might as well have been Jay-Z or Kanye West or a freshly-returned-from-a-secret-cuban-island Tupac. We’ve all been told that it’s a bad idea to meet your heroes but I knew it wouldn’t have been a bad idea to meet mine. Shad’s music promoted values that were so counter-cultural; in the peak of bling era rap Shad was self-effacing. In a hip-hop landscape filled with cynicism and beef, Shad’s music was hopeful and kind. Shad made songs that asked questions instead of boasting about having answers.
So as my hero and I stood in the backyard chatting about basketball and Norm MacDonald I was not surprised one bit by his humility and genuine interest in what was going on in my life. I’ll tell you what did surprise me though. As our chat went on and became more and more irreverent and boisterous other friends started to join in. In order to deflect the conversation away from himself Shad asked one of the late-joiners what kind of things they were working on. This person replied by saying she had just finished defending her masters thesis. Suddenly Shad switched gears and the same guy who was just arguing about the artistic merits of Weird Al began breaking down social and political structures with my post-grad friend. They debated dense philosophical ideas and traded titles of deep academic texts they had both read. It was in this moment where Shad showed that not only was he exactly what I had built him up to be, he was so much more. It’s easy to think of Shad as the friendly Canadian rapper who beat Drake for a JUNO, or as the guy who humbly stepped into the role of hosting CBC’s q after Jian Ghomeshi, but if you really know Shad, you know he’s the type of guy who at the height of his success as an MC found the motivation to earn his own masters degree in liberal studies from Simon Frasier. Shad is the friendly and humble MC he has always been built up to be but behind that is a well-versed, well-studied, sharp and thoughtful observer of the world. And just as he surprised me in the backyard on that sunny Sunday afternoon, listeners to his newest album A Short Story About A War will be equally surprised as Shad’s art finally shows us that he’s everything we thought he was and so much more.
Now in order to be fully up to date with the album before this week’s events, let’s take some time to fully understand the characters and narratives we are dealing with. This album opens up with a poem about a boy walking up in a desert. The boy quickly realizes he is also in a war zone and in that war zone we are quickly introduced to the characters with a list of songs titled after them. Here’s a brief run-through of those characters;
THE SNIPER // The Sniper represents the higher class of society, who use their high status to manipulate the lower class and protect themselves from the perils of wars.
THE ESTABLISHMENT // The establishment represents those who are complicit in war. The people who make weapons who set the stage for war but don’t actively participate. These are people who follow rules and don’t ask questions.
REVOLUTIONARIES // The revolutionaries are the critics of our society. These are the people who have violently chosen to oppose the establishment.
STONE THROWERS // The stone throwers represent the lower class of society. The stone throwers are forced to resort to blind violence with no real purpose or way out.
THE FOOL // The fool is the most subversive character in the story and he represents third way and non violent thinking. The Fool represents hope and faith, which is often looked at as a foolish viewpoint in the midst of the war zone we are living in.
Once the characters are introduced and their intentions are established, we are introduced to the main forces at play in this war zone. Once the boy in the desert understands the war he questions where the war comes from. After this question we are introduced to the two main concepts.
MAGIC // Magic is the forces of evil in play in the world. Magic is a tool used by oppressors. Magic describes the way people have used illusions and distractions to bring out evil in the world.
WATER // The water is a metaphor for the spiritual. The water is the sustaining force of the fool. The water is the one thing the magic men cannot own or control.
The remaining parts of the album are how these characters and forces interact with one another. It’s an incredibly timely piece of work that deals with many important conversations that are happening even in this city. The album concludes with the potential track of the year, “Another Year,” that is a Toronto-focused song that is easy to apply to the questions of gentrification, condo development and fear of change happening in Hamilton.
Now that we’ve covered these ideas, you are primed for this weeks events. You can show up to Eucharist Church on Thursday evening at 7:30 and personally ask Shad any questions you have about this story and how it applies to us right now in a changing city like Hamilton. And once all your questions are answered you can enjoy the beautiful sounds, intricate rhymes and overwhelmingly positive inflection of one of Canada’s most important MC’s at his sold out show at Mills Hardware. These are both events that are sure to be everything they have been built up to be and so much more.
Zak McDonald is a writer proudly based out of Hamilton, Ontario. He thinks about rap music, basketball and being super religious.