I got a sense of the metaphorical muscle Shad flexes in his new album at the very end of the long conversation we had, part of the “research” for this happily and unashamedly biased review. As we said goodbye, Shad reminded me of the Toronto Raptors jacket I was wearing when we first met, 25 years ago. It was a simple, friendly parting comment that instantly brought us uncontroversially together through an object I remembered coveting, a shared (basketball) affection and our brief shared history of pre-teen friendship. It did more for the minor myth-making of childhood connection revisited than a dozen algorithmically generated Facebook friendship collages. And I think there is great continuity between the casual use of my jacket as a symbol and the clever, conscious conjuring of the two central characters Shad has generated for his album A Story About A War.
An opposition between The Sniper and The Fool anchors this elegant, 13-track hip-hop psychodrama. It’s no secret that speaking metaphorically through relatable characters is the way to invite people into the world of a story. But The Sniper and The Fool are particularly rich and salient representatives of human possibility today.
The Sniper appears first. He “wakes up on a desert floor / And all around him are the sights and the sounds of war / Soon he’d learn that the whole world was a desert / And in fact the whole world was at war / Everyone frightened to their core”. The Sniper survives by winning, by remaining invisible, by ranking up. The Sniper embraces the default logic of our culture (to steal Shad’s words from our conversation) and fear fuels his despair-laden success. The Sniper is relatable, whether you’re eaten up by the merciless competition of corporate success, dealing with reality by becoming a legend at Fortnite, or living in a situation of actual warlike violence.
Held backstage until A Story About A War‘s fourth song, The Fool’s arc takes him from spreading a version of the Good News in the feature track Get It Got it Good, to describing his unjustifiable, alluring life of faith in Water. The Fool’s third and final entry has him sounding a bit world-weary in Frame of Mind. His wellbeing is groundless, explained only by his usefully underdetermined personal faith. He is strangely content to embody his name.
The Fool makes no claim to rational certainty or mastery of himself, but he is ridiculously merry in his fearlessness. His epiphany occurs when he simply stops believing in the power of bullets. This is outrageous but important. While The Sniper is taken from and invented for the specifics of today’s world, The Fool is a remix of canonical literary and religious figures; a mix of Dostoyevsky’s Idiot, Kierkegaard’s radical leap of faith, Pascal’s wager, and, of course, Christ (and Shad) himself. And thank God for remixes. Shad recklessly, cleverly preserves the mystery around the Fool, focusing on what he feels, rather than how or why he feels it. This keeps him outrageous, risky, and compatible with a world where daring to hope, finding any kind of faith is likely to expose you to the abject mockery of wise cynics.
The Sniper’s being and his fate are overdetermined. His path is clear, painful, probably unavoidable and tragically logical from the start. It’s not clear what – besides a leap of faith – could bring about a change in his life. This works beautifully as a contrast with the vagueness of The Fool’s private source of wellbeing, his spiritual Water that echoes Freud’s description of the religious feeling as “oceanic”. The Fool’s water “gives you hope / And keeps you afloat / Whole ocean within. They don’t get why I always got a grin / They don’t get why I don’t always gotta win / Do you know that when I walk in the sun I get chills?” It’s not clear whether the Fool was given his grace, took it, or made it up. I think I know what Shad thinks about this, and it doesn’t really matter.
Shad knows it’s a risk for a hero to be impersonal and for a hero to simply pop into a narrative without reason (but definitely with rhyme). It may not be what he intended, but an open-ended model for a good life of fearless freedom contrasted with a coerced framework for a bad life lines up well with the radical liberal thinking of Isaiah Berlin and his subversive, post-liberal heir, John Gray. Both Berlin and Gray make the disturbing point that there are ways to guarantee a bad life but none to guarantee a good one. A bad life can be programmed but a good life depends on chance, on a growing into the idiosyncrasies of personal history. There are universal evils – we are similarly vulnerable animal beings – but not necessarily universal goods.
Programming the path to meaning and pleasure in advance risks brutally stretching us or constraining us within a one-size-fits-all Procrustean bed. It’s much easier to plan pain and meaninglessness than meaningful pleasure. The asymmetry of backstories between Shad’s Sniper and Fool embody much of this, allowing us to read our own outrageous backstory into the Fool’s grace while using the Sniper’s submission to the checking of successful boxes as a clear, cautionary tale. Too much of the world’s default offerings will crush your soul and maybe kill you (after all, it wasn’t engineered with you in mind). What will save you is up for grabs.
The album’s intention is a moral one, but its creator isn’t a puritanical moralizer. If I hand-picked individual lines from the album, I’m sure I could make my aggressively atheistic friends squirm and cringe (me along with them). The story of A Story About A War begins with a track that introduces the Sniper and includes “only the soul is sacred” (why?! How does anybody know this?!!!). But here is the full passage: “A sniper brought up to the height of the stakes / Told only the soul is sacred / And any spot that’s vacant you can take / And above all no place is safe / Unless you’re stationed above all / And stay in that space / Hover over / I was taught everyone is a soldier / Life is a fight / Keep money and people tight in your holsters”. If only the soul is sacred, there’s no end to what you can justify doing to the body. It turns out this is religious doctrine being turned on its head by a believer.
Something similar could be said about the feature track, Get It Got It Good where the Fool enters. Listened to by itself, it might give you the feeling the album is an upbeat, playful platform for Shad’s flow. But when it’s heard after the nihilism of Sniper, Revolution/Establishment and The Stone Throwers, its absurdly gratuitous, faithful existential wager is a shock. A reminder of just how strange, how daring you need to be to be both intelligent and hopeful, to have faith that’s separate from our faith in science. Science can’t prove life is worth living because, so far, life can’t be empirically weighed against the merits of lifelessness. To live as if this were true is to accept a form of foolishness.
As host of Netflix’s Hip-Hop Evolution, this is what Shad has to say about The Native Tongues: “(they) created something universal out of something specific. They were Afrocentric, but inclusive. They were rooted in traditions, but endlessly curious […] But none of that would matter if the music wasn’t dope”. As far as self-created, self-acquired ideals go, this seems like a good one for Shad. It’s a particularly good description of this album’s success, especially since the music is indeed dope thanks in part to the slick mastering and mixing job done by Dan Weston.
If you’ve made it this far, it’s probably obvious to you that this is an album informed by the four horses of evolving apocalypses (economic, political, spiritual, environmental). It doesn’t preach directly at them, it tells stories around them, stories intended for individuals grappling with the limits of individualism. But it’s also an album that indirectly addresses the #metoo moment. The first thing we hear is that Shad started the album by “writing a poem about clever men and our violence”.
Shad’s indirect treatment of clever male violence doesn’t naively propose that we simply abstain from violence. Shad shows-without-telling what it might be like to do something else with violent aggression. He doesn’t resort to the satisfying verbal violence of scapegoating, he turns it inwards and allows for a splitting inside himself, violence transformed into subtle imaginative diplomacy. Preaching abstinence never worked and Shad doesn’t try.
Here is what I mean. In Bob Dylan’s absolutely blazing condemnation of the emerging military-industrial complex, Masters of War, he satisfyingly succeeds in singing a lyrically humiliating account of the people responsible for the business of war. He uses the language of religion to cast a plague on the houses of everybody involved: “Like Judas of old / You lie and deceive / (That) a war can be won / You want me to believe / But I see through your eyes / And I see through your brain / Like I see through the water / That runs down my drain”. The water running down Dylan’s drain isn’t the water that nourishes Shad’s Fool.
The song moves towards the existential horror unleashed by the people he has in mind: “For threatening my baby / Both unborn and unnamed / You ain’t worth the blood / That runs through your veins”. Then it evolves into a revenge fantasy: “I hope that you die / And your death will come soon / I’ll follow your casket / On a pale afternoon / And I’ll watch while you’re lowered / Down to your deathbed / And I’ll stand over your grave till I’m sure that you’re dead”.
Shad’s song about the military-industrial complex is called The Revolution / The Establishment. He leads up to the naming of Dylan’s song with familiar grievances : “They pay the cops / They take office / They make laws / And then say, stop? / They say, war just makes war / But then they force us / When state forces all aim for us / And then they say that they’re brave warriors / And saviours / But they’re fake prophets / They make war / ‘Cause they profit / They make rockets / Sell to all sides / And it all lines they pockets / Watch ’em / Masters of War”.
But then he does something unnecessary. He resists the verbal violence, the sweet, satisfying pleasure of scapegoating. He redirects violence inwards, going Seppuku on himself and, if I’m not reading too much into his convincing psychological occupation of irreconcilable positions, creates and accepts a violent split within himself. He takes the voice of the Masters of War: “We don’t make war / We make sure that there’s order / We just fill orders / […] Listen / My job is complying with city by-laws / And minimizing innocent lives lost / […] War just provides us the chance / To supply a demand / Our stance is, we make instruments / We don’t create incidents…”
Shad’s version won’t noticeably bring about an increase in world peace. But the moral part of me prefers the disturbing non-satisfaction of his version to the thrillingly sweet rage of Dylan. A small part of me felt sympathy for the paper pushers and the data crunchers who remotely assist the horror of war. This is not a sympathetic feeling that’s easy to defend, but there it is. (Should we humanize monsters? The people who assist monsters? The friends of people who assist monsters?)
It is a violent act to turn the knife inwards, to slice yourself in two and imagine the people you despise within the space opened up by the slice. Finding poetry to describe the internal sounds of the slice provides some compensation for the externally violent satisfactions foregone. It is an act in line with currents in Christianity that Shad unquestionably embraces. Taking his kind of lyrical work as Gospel guarantees nothing for anybody, but letting the open-ended nuggets of radical faith tumble around your eardrums for a while provides an opportunity for anybody to make small advances into the territory of paralyzing cynicism, regardless of the fragility of their beliefs or the certainty of their unbelief. This is no small achievement for Shad.
Shad performs at Le Ministère tonight (Friday November 23rd). Click HERE for details.