TAO is on-the-money-music that mystically aligns with where we are as a society and a culture at this moment.
There is a line early on in the song “Out of Touch” that pings a synapse in my brain every time I hear Shad sing it. “The people is sick,” he raps on the opening song of his latest album, TAO, “and nothing that a needle will fix.” Beyond the content of the bar itself, it’s Shad’s delivery that makes it jump out at me. Over the course of his musical career, Shad has refined his flow to the point where he drops his sharp witticisms with the timing of a comedic genius and forces listeners to think on multiple levels at once. I assumed the line was meant as a double reference to the COVID vaccine and the growing issue of vaccine hesitancy and the greater ills of our society – systemic racism, economic inequality, precarious employment, bigotry and intolerance. But you know what they say about assuming. According to Shad, he had finished TAO by the start of the pandemic in 2020. Turns out Shad was more in touch with the universe than even he realized at the time.
TAO is on-the-money-music that mystically aligns with where we are as a society and a culture at this moment. As a critique of capitalism, social media’s insidiousness, surveillance society, and the meaning of Black excellence, it exposes truths and misconceptions while espousing hope, unity, and the overriding belief that we are stronger together than divided. TAO is an album built on the premise that all things happen or exist by way of interconnection and that the further we as a society drift away from that connection and become isolated, the harder it will be to heal and become whole again.
Lofty themes for sure, but Shad is no stranger to making mighty concepts relatable to the masses. TAO is by far his most fully realized work yet. Though many felt strongly about his 2018 concept album A Short Story About a War, I found that the Shad-grows-up-and-gets-serious vibe failed to connect. TAO is no less serious than its predecessor, but benefits from a return-to-form writing style that balances his quick wit, funny asides, and marvellous wordplay with some of his heaviest beats and darkest tones yet. “Work,” featuring frequent collaborator Scratch Bastid, is a left-field industrial bop that bristles with the grind of finding work while maintaining one’s dignity and humanity in the face of economic forces working in the opposite direction. He slams the point home mid-song: “I’m not a man / I am a workhorse / I am a part of the workforce / I’m just not sure of the person or purpose I work for.”
With “Black Averageness,” Shad brings expectations down to a realistic level, stating that the song is about “the humanity of ordinary Black folks. It affirms that to be human is to have limited abilities.” He does so with the catchiest and most accomplished beats on the album, an upbeat number that celebrates and honours those that get up each and every day and work hard for what they have: “So shout out all my Africans / Who learn to data process / To fatten up the pockets / Deal with racist bosses / Stanley at The Office.” Far from being an ode to mediocrity, “Black Averageness” nails TAO’s overarching thesis: in order for a society to fully function and be fertile for everyone, it needs people with ambitions striving for excellence just as much as it needs those who never reach it.
Shad describes the inspiration for TAO as an image of a circle, breaking into small pieces that float apart and disappear, representing society’s slow decline towards isolation and disintegration. He could have framed the album as a critique and left it at that and no one would blame him; it’s been a shitty couple of years and we’re all living in our own little bubbles without any answers on how to re-establish connections. Instead, Shad has crafted a call-to-arms, a rallying cry. TAO calls on each of us to reach out, reverse course, and reconnect with other people, our environment and the world around us, and — most importantly — our humanity.