Shinobi Shaw leaves blood on the speakers with ‘Bluish’

The Columbus rapper doesn’t hold back on his revealing new album, recorded alongside producer Derek Christopher at Penfield Studio and documenting the emotional hurt of these pandemic years.
Cover art for "Bluish"
Cover art for "Bluish"Courtesy Shinobi Shaw

“Career Suicide,” a song that falls near the start of Shinobi Shaw’s bloodletting new album, Bluish, sets the stage for the darker musical turn found within. “This is quite different from what you’re used to hearin’/Me bragging and boasting into your ear,” he raps, a beat later adding, “I just had to get off my chest these years.”

Centered on the stretch that followed the onset of the pandemic, Bluish finds the veteran Columbus rapper pivoting from the self-described “shit talking” that shaped his earlier verses, turning out raw-nerve tracks that find him confronting everything from his history with panic attacks, depression and self-harm to the end of a toxic relationship that temporarily left him feeling as though he had no way out.

“I used to say the pages of my rhyme book were like a 100-page death threat, and when I started this album, it felt like a 50-page suicide note,” said Shaw, who gradually wrote himself out of this depressive hole – an upturn reflected in the rapper’s decision to close the album with the song “Prolonged Life.” “You can think of it as kismet, or whatever, but the last song [on the album] was supposed to be a song I wrote a long time ago called ‘Curl Up and Die.’ But I couldn’t find it, so I replaced it with ‘Prolonged Life,’ which is eminently more hopeful.”

As it did in reality, this journey to the light takes time to unfold on record. Structured as a concept album, Bluish stretches out over 33 tracks and two albums, most of which takes place within the rapper’s psyche. Shinobi said this internal turn was initially fueled by the pandemic, which created what he described as a nightmare scenario, stranding the rapper alone with his thoughts. “Being by myself in that miasma of terribleness started the cave-in,” said Shinobi, who addresses this idea on tracks such as “(Iso)lation” and “Alien.”

Throughout, Shinobi lingers on his anxieties and depression, rapping about his heart beating “like drum and bass” on “Panic Attack” and his history with cutting on the short-but-shattering “Blade Runner.” “Blood and Band-Aids became ritual,” he recites, connecting the act of self-harm to his own deep-seated emotional scars. “Hurt people hurt people is what they say/So this hurt person hurts himself to save you the pain.”

On a handful of tracks, Shinobi unpacks a toxic relationship that unraveled amid the pandemic and added to the emotional weight he was forced to shoulder, though he does so with welcome maturity, accepting his role in its undoing rather than solely pointing the finger. “And that’s how I felt about it. I couldn’t go, ‘This was you. You did all of this,’” he said. “I had my hand in it, and there were things I let happen.”

Indeed, the album is generally so unguarded, so emotionally vulnerable, that I’m briefly taken aback when Shinobi begins to discuss his history with depression and then cuts himself off, saying, “I don’t want to put too much out there.” When I called attention to this point, and to the idea that the record often does quite the opposite, the rapper laughed. 

“That’s true,” he said. “I think that happens with a lot of hip-hop artists – especially male hip-hop artists – where it’s like, ‘I can’t be too vulnerable.’ It's almost like you have to put up this front that you're hard, and you can’t be telling people about your emotions. And maybe that’s more than just a hip-hop thing, but more of a male thing in our society. But with this, I was like, man, I’m in my 40s. It’s been the craziest three years. I can’t be worried about what people think of me. To borrow the phrase, I had to speak my truth.”

Producer Derek Christopher of Penfield Studio crafts a fractured musical backdrop that borrows from industrial, trip-hop and techno and captures the sensation of this emotional unraveling. “Panic Attack,” for one, echoes the breathless, heart-racing sensation of being mid-episode, while the minimalist “(Iso)lation” builds on a barely there beat that heightens the loneliness within. “He was able to interpret the exact emotion and everything I wanted from him,” said Shinobi, who wrote the bulk of these songs in a three-month outburst beginning in January.

The rapper credited this lyrical flood to a change in how he approached the writing process amid a brutal case of writer’s block, saying that he began to embrace putting pen to paper with the same mindset with which he would typically approach a 9-to-5. 

“I started writing every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and I set a schedule and just started exercising that muscle,” said Shinobi, who adopted this schedule after listening to an episode of the podcast “Super Duty Tough Work” in which the Columbus rapper Blueprint discussed the concept of inspiration and the need to continue grinding especially in those moments when it lacked. “And it was very cathartic as [the songs] were flowing out of me. … Obviously with doing this project, I have this inner want to have people understand, and to have them see and feel what I’m going through. And it’s funny, because with the writing, I started off very negative, thinking this might be the last shit I do. But by the end, I got more hopeful about life in general. So, yeah, I went through all this shit. But I’m still here. I survived.”

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