Kool Haus, Toronto, Oct 1, 2010
In a hip-hop landscape formerly dominated by east and west coasts, the north wasn't even an afterthought. Sure, a homegrown MC often opened for touring acts, but to have a pair of acclaimed Canadian rappers like K'naan and Shad fill Toronto's Kool Haus was once almost unimaginable. Times have changed, yo.
The Back Story
K'naan: Coming straight out of Mogadishu gives Keinan Abdi Warsame street cred that not even N.W.A. could compete with, a fact K'naan laid out clearly in his energetic encore track TIA (This Is Africa), which imagined taking American thug rappers on a Somali field trip to "the city we call Doomsday."
Shad: Shadrach Kabango was born to Rwandan parents in much safer Kenya before moving to the small city of London, Ont. Though he has no war-torn tales like K'naan, one of Shad's standout songs was A Good Name, which traced his African moniker all the way to "a slave in Babylon/Back in the day."
K'naan: With a full band behind him, K'naan plays polyglot party music that pushes hip hop into the future by going beyond digital gadgetry and international borders to incorporate traditional African percussion and melody alongside North American beats and rhymes. This exotic synthesis soared highest on his concert-closing, first-album anthem Soobax.
Shad: Backed by a DJ and bassist - and strapping on a guitar himself for Rock To It - Shad's newer material boasted more ornate (and occasionally lyrically distracting) music while older songs like Compromise rode a boom-bap beat that left plenty of room for his pun-laden rhymes ("Glenn Beck better duck like foie gras") to shine.
K'naan: His brilliant beat-free rendition of Somalia elicited cheers for K'naan's emotion-soaked vocals and hard-earned history ("And when I try and sleep, I see coffins closin'") but Wavin' Flag was the hit heard round the world and the crowd clearly got a rush just to be singing along - and wavin' their arms - to the year's greatest anthem.
Shad: Rose Garden, with its sampled soul chorus and clever wordplay, is Shad's biggest hit off TSOL and garnered a huge response (though he failed to coax a singalong ), but the punchlines landed harder on his penny-pinching breakthrough The Old Prince Still Lives at Home, one of the smartest and funniest raps ever recorded.
The Epic Fail
K'naan: Amidst several awesome encore songs ( TIA, Somalia and Soobax), K'naan performed one astoundingly awful one. His misguided mash-up of the lesser U2 song Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of with instrumentation inspired by Jay-Z's novelty single Hard Knock Life somehow wound up sounding like 1970s easy-listening. Meh.
Shad: Though the a cappella coda to The Old Prince was, as always, a high point, Shad ended his set with some spoken-word that managed to make his progressive rhymes sound preachy. It's a rap show not a poetry slam, so by all means drop the beat but don't lose your flow.
K'naan: During a crowd-assisted rendition of the laidback Take a Minute, K'naan explained the song's genesis in Bob Marley's living room and sang the original, never-recorded lyrics which also summarize his musical worldview: "It ain't everyday that you get to give/It ain't everyone who gets to live/It gets me here/That's how I got here."
Shad: Though generally lighthearted, Shad's lyrics are as socially conscious as any MC. But few have recorded a feminist track like his closer Keep Shining, which shouts out "clever broads/With goals like Federov" who "don't let jams disrespect them on the dance floor." Its open mind and kind heart is emblematic of Shad's entire oeuvre.
The King of Can-Hop
Shad's a high-calibre lyricist with an enviable flow, a pair of Polaris Prize nominations and a host of true-school tracks hearkening back to hip hop's golden age, but in the wake of Wavin' Flag, Polaris-nominated and Juno-winning K'naan has become a full on rock star with a confidence honed on the world stage.
Of course, crowning a winner is easier without, y'know, Drake on the bill.