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SHAD

At Harbourfront Centre

in Toronto on Sunday

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A few years ago, I had a chat with Taj Mahal, who was very gloomy about the state of rap music. There used to be so much diversity, he said, then it all got thugged down to the lowest gangsta denominator.

I think that bleak season in rap is ending. Last year's confrontation between Kanye West and 50 Cent (who offered to retire if his new disc didn't do better than Kanye's) was partly a publicity stunt, but Kanye's easy victory also seemed to mark a broader shift in the scene.

More reasons to be cheerful came out in the open, quite literally, at Harbourfront Centre's Sirius Stage on Sunday afternoon. Shad Kabango, the London, Ont., rapper who records as Shad, performed a witty, wide-ranging and thoroughly entertaining set, one day before his album The Old Prince showed up on the short list for this year's Polaris Prize.

Even a few minutes with Shad can show you things you don't get from many of his peers. He raps about everyday subjects, like being broke, or feeling insecure, or trying to figure out how to be who you really are. He doesn't boast much, and he doesn't need to clean up his stuff for an all-ages crowd. He's the only rapper I've ever seen play rhythm guitar while rhyming at full speed, and, as with many Canadians, his humour has a streak of self-deprecation.

"I'm like the Raptors, I got weak first drafts," he said in Compromise, referring to his own writing process. There was a pleasantly loose feeling about his set, as if it were all still a work in progress, like life itself. The successive sections of Out of Love, Part 2, happened almost as if he were making them up on the spot. But the material was tight and well thought out.

Musically, he kept a lot of things in a state of fruitful co-existence, partly through his choice of colleagues. Ian Koiter is a virtuoso funk bassist, as he showed in a very nimble solo, and trumpeter Nick (Brownman) Ali blew a sensational jazz break. Shad's own acoustic guitar riffs often felt like what you might expect from a campfire sampler.

A sunny Sunday brings all kinds of people through the wide promenade beyond the open Sirius Stage, and it was interesting to see who stopped to listen. Without indulging in genre-profiling, there were many I would never expect to see in a rap-friendly club. Something in this generous, open-armed show obviously clicked with them. I can imagine a wide appeal for Shad's onstage persona, which is that of a teddy bear who is also a brother and whose idea of a great T-shirt slogan is "I Want a Clair Huxtable," meaning the tough, lovable matriarch from The Cosby Show.

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So maybe conscious rap is edging out the other kind, "I am the greatest" no longer needs to be the summary of an entire genre and the season of the "ho" is finally passing. Maybe Canadian hip-hop musicians such as Shad, k-os, Cadence Weapon, Kardinal, Abdominal and So-called are actually ahead of the game as it's still played in much of the United States. The Raptors should be so lucky.

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