Isaiah Rashad - Top Dawg Entertainment's enigmatic Chattanooga-raised outlier - is the people’s champ of rap, revered by listeners for blending fearless introspection and vulnerability with the distinctly Southern, swaggering confidence of greats like Big Boi, Juvenile, Master P and Webbie (“Codeine I'm back, leanin', I cope with my demons / The best is not perfect, the rest is not worth it, wake up!”).
He announced himself in 2014 with the clear-headed, confessional ‘Cilvia Demo’ mixtape. 2016’s ‘The Sun’s Tirade’ - which finds Rashad navigating a booze-and-xanax induced fog - was a further elevation. It’s a self-described mix of “that Boosie with that boom bap”, loaded with soul-baring vulnerability. The album confirmed him as a great-in-waiting; it was his last release. Rashad asks “Can I sleep for a while? Can I work on myself?” on ‘Stuck in the Mud’. Taking the long, not-so-scenic route, he’s done that.
Anxiety, financial ruin, self-doubt and the alcoholism he’d alluded to in his lyrics (“My daddy taught me how to drink my pain away”) threatened to consume him. In 2019, a month in rehab calmed the storm and he returned to the studio last January to begin work on ‘The House Is Burning’ - the first project he’s recorded entirely sober. Alcohol and drugs are often viewed as the gateway to creative freedom; Rashad’s long-awaited sophomore album is a dismissal of that. He sounds freer than ever.
‘The House Is Burning’ subverts expectations. Come in search of a swimming pool of despair to dive into and you might find yourself making it rain poolside with an assortment of bouncing video vixens to speaker-rattling cuts ‘From the Garden’, ‘Lay Wit Ya’ and ‘9-3 Freestyle’. Under the tutelage of his “rap coach” Kenny Beats, Rashad finally learnt to freestyle. It’s added another layer to his artistry. Here, his flow is razor-sharp, ultra-confident and unburdened.
Opener ‘Darkseid’ - a reference to the villain of DC’s ‘Mister Miracle’ comic book series - is steeped in deathly imagery, unfolding over a ghostly vocal loop. But it’s ultimate message is one of fate-defying strength. “Is that you on the edge? / “Whatever was under the bunk bed, I ain't scared, I’m ready” Rashad assures us, and himself. It sets the tone for the rest of the album - healing is not a destination, it’s a journey.
Rashad’s music is like a sonic encyclopaedia of Southern rap reference points. On ‘The House Is Burning’ he nods to Project Pat on ‘RIP Young’, flips Pimp C’s immortal bars “If I wasn’t rappin, baby / I would still be ridin Mercedes'' into a husky chorus on ‘Chad’ and pays homage to Goodie Mobb on the album’s title track, which candidly addresses his alcoholism. There’s a contemplative, twilight-hours cool to these songs, occupying the hazy space between darkness and light.
Rashad admits that the project’s most emotive, ballad-like offerings were left on the cutting room floor. So perhaps reflective closer ‘HB2U’ points towards the direction his music will ultimately take, his Tennessee drawl blossoming from rapping to singing. “This ain't as hard as it gets, but I'm still on drugs / Just that weekend buzz” he croons. It captures that woozy moment when he mas mid-fall, not at rock bottom but tumbling down towards it. The track’s old-time, soulful, Commodore-like rendering places it firmly in his rearview as he cruises towards a hopeful future.
Words: Robert Kazandjian
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