Shad

TSOL (Black Box Recordings/Decon)

Many lament the fact that hip-hop's BS-to-substance ratio is still relatively high. But here's some good news: Shad — short for Shadrach Kabango, born in Kenya but raised in London, Ontario, Canada — is a great example of what's good in hip-hop these days. Add him to a short, but hardly exhaustive, list that could include MCs like Mos Def, J-Live, Invincible and Jean Grae. His third album, TSOL, is literate, optimistic, self-deprecating, and so full of deftly turned phrases and boom bap that you'll forget that the album is curse-free. You could easily bump this in the car with the kids, enjoy it and not feel like you're poisoning impressionable minds.

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Optimism doesn't mean that Shad isn't realistic, and he acknowledges that two songs in, on "Rose Garden." And he doesn't shy away from taking responsibility for himself: "If I'm gonna point fingers, better point 'em at the mirror," he says in "Lucky 1's." 

"Keep Shining" is a well-done tribute to women that's in no way schmaltzy. In it, he points out the thing that hip-hop sorely lacks: more voices of women. "There's no girls rappin so we only hearin half the truth/What we have to lose — too much/half our youth aren't represented/The better half of dudes." He finishes the song by shouting out all the women in his family who influenced and inspired him — Mom, aunts, sister, cousins, Grandma.

Dude's funny, too. Here's a chuckle-inducing line: "Maybe I'm not big cuz I don't blog or twitter …/Dog, I'm bitter … " from "Yaa I Get It."

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The album reaches its most poignant moment with "At the Same Time," where Shad talks about feeling two diametrically opposed emotions at once. Perhaps it's the proximity of the midterm elections and my awareness of the vitriol and fears that those on the right are co-signing that made this first line of the song resonate: "I never laughed and cried at the same time/till I heard a church pray for the death of Obama/and wondered if they knew they share that prayer with Osama." Indeed. Based on his examples, he's laughed and cried at the same time more often than maybe he initially thought. Perhaps it's an indication of the times in which we're living.

Shad's TSOL is compelling not because he's a talented MC — and he is — but because he's got enough humility to understand that the world doesn't revolve around him. It's okay to be realistic and honest, particularly about oneself, yet optimistic about the future and proud of your own accomplishments without being bombastic. We have plenty of hip-hop that keeps it real. Maybe it's time for more artists to take a page from Shad and look on the bright side.

If this were Twitter, I'd tag this #hope4hiphop.

Earl Greyhound

Suspicious Package (Hawk Race Records)

At first you're not sure you're actually listening to an Earl Greyhound album.

When "Eyes of Cassandra (Part 1)" begins quietly, building like daybreak peeling back the night, it's so unlike the muscular, guitar-driven sound that characterized much of their previous album, Soft Targets. And before the song transitions into Part 2, there's a segue that reminds me of a Brazilian shuffle, all drums and moans.

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None of this is a bad thing. Suspicious Package presents a band that's growing musically. They've got the three-piece rock thing down, and they now feel comfortable enough to stretch out a bit, and that makes for an album that provides different sonic flavors. For example, one thing you'll notice is the prominence of bassist Kamara Thomas on vocals. On Soft Targets, Matt Whyte shouldered much of the vocal duties. Here it feels more shared. Kamara has become a more confident singer, and it shows both when she's providing harmonies as well as singing lead.

"Ghost and the Witness" and "Shotgun" are killers. In fact, if you listen to the three bangers that begin with "Oye Vaya" and end with "Shotgun," don't be surprised if you need to go out for a cigarette.

Nice, too, to hear Whyte take on more ballads. "Bill Evans" has a wistful vibe similar to the piano coda of "Layla," from the movie Goodfellas. And "Out of Air" is absolutely beautiful, haunting even. He sings, "Flood won't let it fall/Sea's too deep for wrecking ball/I'm almost out of air/Can I start again?"

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"Misty Morning" is a great closer. It pulls you out of the introspection and melancholy that the two preceding songs, beautiful though they are, put you in. A triumphant head nod washes all the blues away.

Props to Earl Greyhound who, with Suspicious Package, have given listeners every reason to trust them.

Steven Roby and Brad Schreiber

Becoming Jimi Hendrix: From Southern Crossroads to Psychedelic London, the Untold Story of a Musical Genius (Da Capo Press)

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For many people, Jimi Hendrix will always be frozen in amber. Like Bruce Lee and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jimi will always be young, beautiful and at the peak of his abilities. The images we're left with are iconic: Hendrix setting his guitar ablaze in London in '67 or his rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock in '69. In fact, it's easy to forget that he didn't just spring forth fully formed. 

For a reader's first exploration into Hendrix's early years, Steven Roby and Brad Schreiber's well-researched book provides a solid start. Amazon.com notes 127 other biographies and memoirs of Hendrix, including Black Rock Coalition co-founder Greg Tate's Midnight Lightning and David Henderson's definitive 'Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky.

Deeply rooted in rhythm and blues and Delta blues, these early years were so much about Jimi's quest to manifest the emotional, spacey and mystical sounds he heard in his head. He was never afraid to try things musically, such as wailing, feedback-infused solos in the middle of popular R&B songs. Despite the fact that audiences seemed to love him, he was fired from nearly as many bands as he played in because many bandleaders felt upstaged.

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By the time he arrived in Harlem in the 1965, he found its musicians and club owners also had little patience for not only the feedback and volume he favored but also for his style of dress, which, with its "ruffled sleeves, brightly colored shirts and bellbottoms, jewelry, wide-brimmed hats and capes," was more suited to go-with-the-flow East Village than the uptown cool of Harlem. It's no wonder that Europe felt more welcoming.

What emerges is a picture of an icon as a human being. Jimi Hendrix came from a family who loved him, but he was also shaped as much by his own vision as he was by the community of musicians and supporters around him. He was naive and at times childlike, but could also fall into fits of jealous rage. You could look at these early years, note his suffering (he was often hungry, broke and steps away from being homeless) and say he paid a steep price in order to realize his vision. But it's also impossible to read this book and conceive of him doing anything else. After all, here's a guy who slept with his guitar.

What this book does well is bring a legend down to earth, if only so that readers can, 40 years after his untimely passing, better understand from whence he came.

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Rob Fields writes about black rock and black alternative music on his blog, Boldaslove.us. Follow him on Twitter.