Shad on Family, Connection, and His Genre-Bending Seventh Album 'TAO'
The veteran rapper has been at it for 16 years. Now, on his seventh album, he's still not shying away from themes of capitalism & racism but leaning into them.
Image via Justin Broadbent
Shad has been in the game for 16 years now. As a veteran rapper who dropped his first album back in 2005, the musician has seen and done it all, from winning Junos and being shortlisted for a Polaris Prize, to hosting the Emmy-winning series Hip-Hop Evolution, it seems there is little ground he hasn’t covered. One would think that after releasing album after album, the well of inspiration would run dry. But when it came time to start thinking about cooking up something fresh, Shad was reading and writing and bursting with ideas, which all took shape in TAO, his genre-bending seventh album that sees him yet again, moving the cultural conversation forward.
TAO is many things. It’s an idea, a wake-up call, a snapshot of the world where it’s currently at. It’s an expansive, colourful record that dives into capitalism, racism, surveillance, Black excellence—or lack therof—and more, that, in true Shad fashion, uses witty but razor-sharp lyrics to spark a dialogue around these issues, but in a way that aims to unite rather than divide. In many ways, TAO functions as a puzzle that takes the unique aspects of the human experience and puts them together to create a mosaic of relatable ideas.
There are sounds that pop up throughout the album, pulled from soul, electronic music and more, and themes from books including The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and The Abolition of Man that take shape. No one would expect an album with such overt downcast messaging to still have a glimmering thread of hope running the entire way through it, but if anyone can bring juxtaposing sounds and ideas together, it’s Shad.
Complex caught up with Shad to talk about his new album, fatherhood, Jay-Z, and more.
Oh my goodness, I’m super excited to be chatting with you. So I guess we’ll just dive into it then. I had heard that the concept or idea behind this album began with the image of a circle. So where did that come from? Was there a particular piece of art that sort of sparked the inspiration behind that?
No, it wasn’t a piece of art. So I’m trying to go back to the moment in my mind, but I was going for a walk. And that’s that’s often when I’m gathering my thoughts, you know. And the image that that occurred to me that was sort of like this circle, that if you can imagine, a circle that’s a whole circle, then it started to fragment. So it started to break into a few different pieces. And then those pieces started to float away from each other and eventually disintegrate. And I was struck by this image, as I was just thinking about the many, many different aspects of who we are, how we think about who we are, and how we seem to be losing touch with each and every one of those aspects. So that image represented that idea to me. So for example, work is a big part of our lives, [it’s] part of a big part of how we think about ourselves. And work, as we know, is becoming more scarce, is becoming more precarious. And also, for a long time, has been increasingly divorced from community. If you imagine back in the day, somebody was the… I don’t know, the local hat maker. And there was a very clear connection between what he did and his community. And now, increasingly, even the work that does exist, it’s like you work for a multinational corporation, you work over here in the accounting department over on the other side of the world, [and] they’re doing this, that, or the other thing that you may or may not even be aware of. And anyway, so that’s just that’s just one example of one piece of ourselves I feel that we are losing touch with. And it’s also kind of disappearing.
Another would be our relationship to the natural world, to the environment. You know, most of us live in cities at this point? What’s our relationship? We don’t have much of the relationship to the land, and then what does that do? What does that do to our humanity? What does that do to our peace of mind? So yeah, so that image struck me as like, wow, that’s a really simple but but powerful metaphor to me for what I think is happening within each of us. And, and also between us too, because another aspect of who we are is our relationship to one another, of course, and that also, we’re losing touch with. If you look at our discourse in the last 10 to 15 years, now it seems like you always hear about how we’re becoming a more polarized society; we’re losing touch with one another. We’re losing the ability to have conversations and form connections across difference. So yeah, that’s an incredibly long answer to just your first question, I apologize. But that’s the genesis of the image and what it meant to me, and it just was a helpful way for me of understand what I feel like is a pretty profound problem within many of us and facing our society. And so when it came time to make a new album, it struck me like, hey, this, this is probably a good guiding idea, it’s big enough that I can make a lot of different songs that still fit under that umbrella, but at the same time, it would hold it all together. And it’s what I have to say—it’s kind of my contribution to the conversation right now.
“To try to make a song like ‘Out of Touch’ still feel soulful and hopeful, that gets me out of bed in the morning.”
It’s very interesting to hear you connect the dots between all of those things, because to me, when I actually look at the cover art, that’s kind of what I get from that because it’s abstract and colorful. So it really does come full circle.
That’s cool. Yeah, I always work with the same artist, Justin Broadbent, on my album art. But this was a pretty unique situation where I laid out everything [that] I just laid out to you about the inspiration for the album. And he nailed it on pretty much his first attempt, he pretty much came up with that, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I think it’s done.’ And I love the colors that he used, the primary colors, because I also did want the album to feel soulful, and, and hopeful and, and fun. And so yeah, he kind of carried a sense of that. But at the same time, it has all these symbols and it’s abstract, and it’s kind of collage-y and disjointed, and that is ultimately what I’m trying to say too.
Yeah, no, that’s perfect because actually, speaking about sort of that idea, I mean this album, it is a bit less bleak than A Short Story About A War. But it definitely is still, you know, political because you look at songs like “Work,” and you look at songs like “Out of Touch.” It definitely does go back to being a little bit more playful. So I’m wondering how were you able to tap into that headspace and cycle through those themes of capitalism and racism, but still craft those really witty lyrics around those ideas?
Well, that’s the joy of it for me, to a great extent it is the creative challenge of trying to make these ideas come alive in music. And by come alive, I mean feel exciting and feel fun. And do it my way. And I think what comes naturally to me, what I love to do is be playful, and be fun and inject a sense of, you know, joy and excitement into my ideas about the world and about myself and my perspective, which sometimes, yeah, you know, I gotta call it how I see it. And things aren’t great. But yeah, but I still do love entertaining people and bringing people together and and making people feel joy. You know, it’s really something that I love so yeah, I guess all that to say, I love the creative challenge of that. That’s exciting for me. So yeah, to try to make a song like “Work” feel exciting and fun. Or to try to make a song like “Out of Touch” still feel soulful and hopeful, that gets me out of bed in the morning.
I mean, also, it’s just very much a way of looking at [the world] like yes, things can be dark, but the way that we kind of get through it as people is by making jokes about stuff.
Totally, by laughing at the absurdities. And by getting together. I really envisioned for a lot of these songs to sound like… with “Out of Touch” I imagine people listening to that together, dancing to that song together. That’s a big part of the answer to the to the problem I’m describing—none of us can do it on our own. That’s something that we are told a lot in our very individualistic society, is it’s on you to do your self-care. It’s on you to do your, you know, everything. But it’s like, no, it’s us. It doesn’t work. No one can care for themselves. So I want the music to feel like that and encourage that.
Yeah, definitely there’s that sense of community for sure. There’s also a lot of commentary around technology on the record, particularly about social media. So as an artist, how do you find a balance between relying on social media to showcase your music and what you’re up to, while still remembering that you have a life offline, outside of that as well?
I feel lucky because I come from the old era. Like, I remember both. I really feel lucky in that way, because I can sit down sometimes and compare and contrast and go, “How is how is this helping me, how is not helping me.” I have something to compare this to. I’m really from before this, as well as from the time of it. So that’s a guiding light for me. And also, because I come from before it, it’s kind of pretty hardwired in my brain that that social media is not real. Like it’s an extension, it’s an add-on. It’s not the real thing, money or real life. Your real political opinions, they play out in your life. I have nothing against online activism, but what you believe is really is what you stake your life on, your real life, your real lived life, with the people in front of you in the communities that you really participate in offline. So I just come from that, I’m hardwired to think that and maybe, at this point, maybe I’m even wrong in thinking that, but I’m hardwired to think that. I always try to think about social media that way, this is a tool, this is an add-on. This is not my real life.
At the same time, I understand the culture of many of the different social media sites, because I’m also of it. I understand Facebook, I understand Twitter, I understand Instagram, I understand TikTok less, but at some point, I’ll probably understand that too. It’s just a culture, it’s a new culture. But my life, you know, especially at this stage, I have a wife, I have two kids, I live with my younger brother, my eldest sister lives down the street. I’m really in the thick of life, in many ways. And in the thick of, of life, that’s really around me and offline. So that helps me keep that perspective, too. Because, you know, there’s a crying child in my arms. And so that’s a that’s a real thing. That’s not online. That’s happening. So yeah, it’s tricky. And there’s definitely a threat of technology throughout the album. Because as much as it’s in our conversations, I don’t think it can be understated how much of a shift has happened in the last 20 years. These are game-changing technologies, like on par with the printing press, on par with anything greater than that, really. So I really think we should just take a second and not just be completely critical, but say really, ‘How is this helping our connection to ourselves and to each other? And how is it hurting? Let’s really evaluate.’
“I was actively told your job is not to refute stereotypes, or to prove anything about you or about us as Black people, your job is to be a good person. And whatever that looks like for you, and there’s nothing wrong with being average, with being normal.”
Yeah, definitely. Especially right now with the election coming up. I feel like we’re all constantly thinking about this, just the way that information is getting disseminated.
Totally, you know, a lot of people were stunned at the election of Donald Trump. And it’s like, there’s there’s many things that contributed to that. But one of them is what we’ve done to journalism. We didn’t totally pause to think about it and make that evaluation. And I think that it’s important that we do that before it’s too late before we don’t have any perspective anymore, before we no longer remember how things were to say okay, “What’s improved and what’s been harmed,” as far as our ability to feel whole and connected to ourselves and feel connected to each other in a healthy way.
Speaking of feeling connected, you’d mentioned your kids earlier. And so I really wanted to touch on “Black Averageness.” As a father, what do you hope you can teach your kids about averageness, and about what the idea of Black excellence is nowadays?
So, you know, a lot of what’s in that song was passed down to me from my parents. So my family came to Canada when I was a baby, they didn’t come here so that I could be an astronaut or head of state… they wouldn’t be mad at that, but that’s not why they came here. They came here so that I could live in dignity and peace, like an average person should be able to do. I feel really fortunate that I was given that message I was. I was never told, in fact, I was actively told, “Your job is not to refute stereotypes, or to prove anything about you or about us as Black people, your job is to be a good person. And whatever that looks like for you, and there’s nothing wrong with being average, with being normal. We hope that you are normal and average.”
“You are normal and average,” actually was a message that I got a lot, and that’s freeing. Ironically, I don’t think that limited me in any way. I think it liberated me, I think it was a way of saying it’s okay to try things and fail. It’s okay to be a normal person. I, of course, love Black excellence and celebrate Black excellence. I think everybody does. But, and this has been said by many people from comedians [to] cultural critics, it’s [what] we don’t have a lot of times as Black people is that freedom to fail, is that freedom to be mediocre. You know, we’re always viewed as outliers, either magically endowed with certain gifts, or pathological criminals or something less-than. The truth is, we are like everybody else, which is normal, which is average. And we should be able to do that. Chris Rock has this amazing bit where he talks about… straying a little bit from your question.
The best interview is when we go off track, so go for it.
Yeah, he has this amazing bit where he talks about the neighborhood he lives in, where there’s like, four Black people or something. He says, it’s like me, Derek Jeter, you know some other Grammy award-winning musician, and somebody else, and he says, “Uh, my neighbor is a white dentist.”
Yeah, I’ve seen that!
That thing kind of sums up some of what I’m getting at in the song too, you know? So yeah, in terms of my kids, I just hope to pass on that message that I got from my parents, because that was very liberating for me. And not everybody got that.
Definitely. It’s very interesting, because even just after my first lesson of it, it had me thinking so much about the idea of Black capitalism. I was listening to it when the Beyonce and Jay-Z Tiffany ads came out, and so I was thinking so much about that, I mean, with Jay-Z specifically being a capitalist, and the idea of equating, you know, Black wealth and success with liberation. So how you think the song fits into that commentary?
Yeah, I think that’s really interesting. Because it’s all these different notions of freedom, right?
“My mom is talking about what the word human means in our language of Kinyarwanda. And so to be able to tie all of those three things together in one song, the spirituality, the humanity and also the culture and how they’re all related, that was a really cool moment for me.”
You can’t dismiss the fact that when you don’t have to worry about financial stresses, that is an important kind of freedom, but it’s not the only kind of freedom and it’s not freeing for everybody. You know, a lot of times it’s just freeing for you. And it’s not larger freedom from the structures that control us now in keeping people oppressed. So how does the song relate to that, I think it does. I think there are definitely many lyrics in there that point to, “You don’t gotta strive to be a billionaire.” I guess that’s cool [laughs] but you don’t have to strive for that.
This is a bit unrelated, but there’s also a message in there about different versions of Blackness too, that I think is important. And that was, that’s something that was passed down to me too, this idea of us as a monolith and even Black excellence as a monolithic thing. Like, it has to look like this, it has to look like a billionaire class kind of success, and it’s like, no! That’s my favorite line in the song: “I have every right to be like a B or C with a durag on while I ski” [laughs.] Like, that freedom to have different expressions of Blackness, too. But yeah, the Black capitalism thing is interesting, because we didn’t question that for so long, right? We loved hearing Jay-Z, say... I forget what he said, but [along the lines of] “I make millions and give back, that’s the win-win.” That was really the ethos. We all believed in that, we all celebrated that. We’re all happy for Jay-Z and Beyonce and we love them, and we celebrate with them. But the analysis has gotten deeper, which is good and this how it’s always supposed to progress and expand on. So yeah, this is a bit of a contribution to that.
That’s good though, because you want to have that commentary, you want to have music that makes you think about these things. I wanted to go back quickly, because you’d mentioned your parents earlier. There’s some snippets of them on the track “God” and they’re talking about what it means to be human. Did you agree with what they said and how have they shaped your relationship with faith?
Yeah, I loved hearing them on that. I wasn’t sure what I wanted them to say but we’d been discussing like the older I get, the more I realize how I’m just their son. I’m really a product of them and how much I treasure some of the things that they’ve shared with me. I think a lot of those things, a lot of what I’ve come to treasure the most is their point of view on what it means to be a human being, the faith that they pass down, the spiritual grounding… this idea that they love me, but even if they don’t love me perfectly, I am in some cosmic sense loved and worthy of love and good in some great ultimate sense. That grounding and the discipline and practice to remember that the older I get, the more I realize how much of a gift that is. So it means a lot to me to have them share some of their thoughts and then to ground it in culture. At the end, my mom is talking about what the word human means in our language of Kinyarwanda. And so to be able to tie all of those three things together in one song, the spirituality, the humanity and also the culture and how they’re all related, that was a really cool moment for me. It all just kind of like came came together. But yeah, I guess that’s what they passed down to me, among other things that I really treasure, and it just makes sense to share it directly from them sometimes in the songs as opposed to translate it through me. Why not get them on the song to say it themselves the way I heard it growing up.
Definitely, it’s definitely more impactful that way, I think because people’s parents mean a lot.
We’re in a different place than where we left off, but I love it. So the album obviously has a pretty special title as well—walk me through that and the different meanings that are attached to it.
So about the initial inspiration for the album—it’s kind of like a big idea, right? So I was trying to figure out, what’s the title, what are like three words to sum up all of this. And as I was thinking about it, I was thinking about a couple of books. I was reading a book called The Age of Surveillance Capitalism while I was writing the album. And then that made me think of this book I read called The Abolition of Man, that was written like eight years before, but they’re totally on the same wavelength, which I think is really, really interesting. Both of those have the acronym TAO in them. And The Abolition of Man actually talks a lot about the TAO and so I thought, hey, the abolition of… the age of… and then TAO, just because of the TAO having this spiritual connotation, and ultimately, to me, I think the album describes the spiritual situation. So I was like, I think this it, I think this is the title. It relates to these two texts that were influential on my thinking with the album. And then it has this heavy spiritual connotation, which, ultimately, I think that’s what the album is about. It touches on all sorts of political and economic and environmental issues. But ultimately, I think it describes something more fundamental, something deeper. So for all those reasons, I was like, I think this is it, I think I can go with this as a title.
“I hope people come away with some hopeful sense and they come away with a sense of how much we need each other. The answer is not some individual tale of heroism. It’s us, it’s wholeness.”
It’s so funny, if you had gone to school for communications, I feel like the themes would have been swirling with all of that even more. I’m like, “Oh, my goodness, I feel like I’m back in school,” in the best way.
Okay, good. I think I took like, maybe one or two communication studies classes, but even then it was before a lot of this stuff was being discussed.
So funny. I remember being in school, and it was a visual communications class, and we talked so much about surveillance and, you know, the way that many of us surveil ourselves, especially if you’re a marginalized person, the way that you kind of move through the world, you’re policing yourself. So it’s very interesting. Again, it’s like the circle thing, it just all sort of comes back to that.
Yeah, it’s all connected. And it was amazing. Thinking about, when I was reading that book, this amazing book, I think The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is kind of a must-read for understanding our lives right now. But it made me flashback to this Abolition of Man book because, again, full circle, they’re ultimately about the same thing. It’s about what happens when we see ourselves not as.. I don’t know what the right word is like, a sacred thing; we see ourselves like every other piece of raw material in the world, you know, data points. So this guy was kind of theorizing about that 70 or 80 years ago, and now we’re in the place where we’re actually doing that to ourselves.
It just really does all feed into everything that we’re talking about. My mind is spinning. I’m just looking here, I’ve only got you for another minute so I will wrap up, but what’s the main thing that you want listeners to take away from the album when they hear it?
I hope people come away with some hopeful sense and they come away with a sense of how much we need each other. The answer is not some individual tale of heroism. It’s us, it’s wholeness. It can’t be achieved without us, without relationship, without connection between people. That’s what I hope people come away with, if not thinking and feeling.
No man is an island.
No, for sure.
Also, just one last thing to just check. You wrote this album before the pandemic hit, right?
That’s right. Yeah.
It’s even more, I guess, telling now, given where we’re at. It’s very, very interesting that it happened that way.
Yeah, totally. I talked with [Skratch] Bastid every once in a while about exactly that, because we finished “Work” like six weeks before the pandemic hit.
Oh my God. That’s crazy. Weird.
But definitely, the concept came to like a couple years before at least. And I was almost done. The recording was definitely done. The bulk of the writing before so yeah, it’s like another layer to everything now. But there’s a friend of mine [who] wrote this column early in the pandemic, and he hit the nail on the head when he said, “The pandemic isn’t a new thing, as much as it’s accelerated what was already happening in terms of people being apart from each other, and work being precarious and stuff, it kind of just hit the gas pedal on a lot of trends that were already happening, [with] inequality.” It just hit the gas pedal on them. So in that way, it’s it’s almost not coincidental that the stuff that I was writing feels like more relevant now. Because it’s not like something new happened as much as it’s we just reached the logical end point a lot faster maybe than we thought.
TAO is out now.