Midway through 2014, a young dude screwed up. He’d done it before, but now it was getting physical – his stomach lining had been ripped apart by liquor and Xanax. At 23, he’d only been drinking for two years. That’s a long time to wait for madness, to skirt the party for weed with your girl and stay in the back seats of cars rather than taking control of the radio.
Isaiah Rashad, newly signed to Top Dawg Entertainment, was making up for lost chaos. His first EP, Cilvia Demo, had dropped and dented not just the rap scene, but the Billboard 200. He was touring with Schoolboy Q, playing to tens of thousands of kids and making good on his promise as one of two greenhorns (the other being labelmate SZA) sticking close to TDE’s mantra of careful craftsmanship. Yet offstage, he didn’t want to care. Night after night, he’d hit the bottle, the pill jar, the floor. “When that shit happened,” he told podcaster Juan Epstein, “I had my momma saying I’m doing this, doing that . . . and she’d give me a hard time and I wouldn’t talk to her for, like, a week. I’d just keep doing what I was doing. Take myself to the hospital or whatever.” Los Angeles had taken him aside, shown him the view, gripped him too hard. He was either a ghost on the West Coast or, when he got a chance to be, his son’s father. Q and label boss Anthony Tiffith took notice. In the course of that year, Rashad – one of their brightest talents – was almost dropped three times.
You might look on it as a case of sustained stupefaction. Isaiah didn’t want to go AWOL, necessarily. He’d played life as straight as many of us would. As a kid in Chattanooga, Tennessee, he’d knuckled down, kept up with school, sought some jamming buddies for sure to record with but thinking always of college. That earlier screwup? Driving back to his great-grandmother’s funeral high as a satellite, and maybe panicking, trailed for several miles by a state trooper. The cop had pulled him over, charged him and taunted him with consequences. “I started getting like a whole bunch of emails about not coming on campus […] I was getting profiled. Then,” he sighed to Complex on a press run before the Oxymoron Tour, “I couldn’t get a job because of the way they described that shit on the docket.”
So school and regular employment were out. It was a good job Top Dawg signed him when they did. Cilvia Demo’s reception gave them cause to let an overwhelmed kid struggle with boobs, ass and freedom. And Rashad knew it wouldn’t be enough. Eventually, he’d have to change. So he came off the drugs and went dark, writing, hanging out, releasing two tracks to let us know he hadn’t slipped in the shower. Turning up, most notably, for a Sprite ad. Then he emerged in 2016 with The Sun’s Tirade – an album that stares success in the face, screws its eyes, and resists the urge to be captivated by thoughtlessness.
If not a concept record, The Sun’s Tirade vibrates with the theme of expectation. Voicemails turn up to remind Isiah of what he should be rapping about, berating him for being slow, for summoning his subjects gently. “I don’t understand this process, dog,” laments intro skit, ‘where u at?’ “You don’t care? You don’t care that they wanna hear your next shit?” Whoever’s on the phone gives him “till Friday.” A stalker, fan, label hound? Who knows how they got this number? 27 minutes later, they’re still admonishing him. “You talking ‘bout you ain’t got nothing to talk about. Find a motherfucking topic, goddamn . . .”
But the topic is the man. In hiatus, Isaiah beat addiction, found his thoughts where he left them and got to work. It began with the beats. You feel that. Soon the record had a shape and a texture, nothing grand, just tempting. Chill. Spellbound. Lost within a churning brain. The album’s mostly mellow and expresses the urge to be carried somewhere you know you shouldn’t want to visit. There’s less space than his earlier music. It contracts and clutches a few key instruments, synths like Jack-in-the-boxes, others as fleet as sci-fi scale runs for waking coma patients. Our anti-hero is never absent, and frequently insightful, yet he’s only half here. Half certain. Unsure how much of himself to lose to booze and pussy. That’s the crux of the record – it lulls you into the cyclical passivity of inaction, exactly what its creator feared. A rebound. Limitless pleasures. Looking at God, seeing the buffet’s quite bare up there and, with a fizzing head, stumbling to parties, giving yourself a mantra of dos and don’ts and maybes, and waking up to feel like you need to put faith in what you do, get serious. But how much? And when?
To achieve this, he sought eclectic producers like Cam O’bi who cut his teeth big-time on Chance’s Acid Rap, and Beyonce fam Mike WiLL Made-It, soon-to-be architect of some of Damn’s sharpest edges. Here too, the label’s top-drawer talent roster came in handy, filling out Isaiah’s push for a darker sound. ‘Free Lunch,’ the first single, teased a tighter instrumental than anything he’d released to date. Almost-chimes. Brash snare beat. A bass riff tickles the neck like a lizard running on a hot stone. It’s a great opener but also, misleading. The rest of the record doesn’t quite groove like this. It gets murkier. More mournful. But for a single, ‘Free Lunch’ hits the spot, lifted by flurries of strings that almost – again, just barely – assert themselves.
Bars such as “steel in my liver, real n****s in my condom,” smack of child-bright gusto, quite appropriately since the song is from the perspective of Isaiah’s brother who, like him, spent his childhood accepting government meal tickets. Now, grown, Rashad is burning money, or a “mil’ ticket” if you prefer. A dealer is mentioned. His name is Phil. Phil both hits Rashad back and brings him back, returning calls and saving him from the agony of living without running a bill as far as he can, cos he barely had a dime to begin with.
And it’s easy to plummet. We’re whistling in the shadows on ‘Tity & Dolla’, just carefree, talking about losing a kidney. Issues of power and invincibility abound. Referencing Playaz Circle, the 000s duo who broke apart from a gunshot and incarceration, Isaiah stares at lines of coke, “the sweet line I used to walk,” feeling his heroes on his shoulder. He puts codeine in his soup. A sax answers, embellishing the chorus. “Bitches gon’ be bitches,” he says, and tellingly, “Just call before you come . . .” There’s such a sense of floating ease that you kind of want to surrender for a while, clear the sofa and just fall into an ass. For a waltz down the tit-strewn world of adolescence, it’s a good song. Because it’s not quite sure of itself. There’s talk of running, and smoking as an excuse to sprawl on someone, and knowing it’s all owed to you which can’t possibly be true. If someone’s not calling first, they’re living their life. You’re the subordinate. Rashad doesn’t want those around him to be spontaneous; it affords him more control.
Not that he’d actually give a shit about anything I’ve said, or will say, about this album. He’s been vocal about its meaninglessness: “It’s just a long, hot-ass rant. That’s all the project is. Hot tracks. Hot bars. Upset-ness. Making something real sad sound cool sometimes. I might be the most nonchalant rapper out right now.” Stiff competition, even at the time. Mac Miller was stitching pop onto sad boii rap with The Divine Feminine. Earl Sweatshirt had become hip hop’s de facto depressive, a niche he’d hack to mesmerising depth on Some Rap Songs. Though maybe it’s Mac whom Rashad correlates here. Aesthetically, they’re a dimension apart. Yet by welding actual experiences to more universal pleas for connection – as well as not really singing, or rapping, but doing something in the middle – The Sun’s Tirade has lyrics that twitch with specificity, yet remain abstract enough for anyone to lay their own experiences on top of them.
It’s evident in ‘4r Da Squaw’, drawing attention to Isaiah’s Southern roots and their rarity in mainstream rap culture. ‘Squaw’ is slang for ‘squad’: he’s proud of it, storming the gates of East and West Coast taste-making. The instrumental struts, lopes, hisses with a quarter-bar hi-hat. There’s a crew on the streets, sharing their success. “When I pay my bills, I’m good, I’m coming over | Find a message in a bottle, your son is coming up.” And then: “You ain’t nothing but a baby, your fear is growing up.” It’s some major sonnet shit. ‘Son’ is also ‘sun’, rising and bathing all before it. Yet he’s terrified of the responsibility that rides with money, looking after your mum, giving back to those who gave their support early and so on. We already know, from Cilvia’s ‘Hereditary’, that Isaiah credits his father with teaching him how to drink for the wrong reasons. Is he destined to repeat the lesson with his own boy? Plenty of young parents can latch onto this – or anyone who’s tasted victory and hasn’t a clue what to do with it.
The album’s guest stars turn up whenever he wants to crank up the speed or hazed-out seduction. SZA does great work on ‘Stuck In The Mud’, complementing the shopping-list delivery of lines that throw cars, people and dreams in “the mud”, a Xanax alias. Otherwise, she’s playing call-and-response, like a side of his consciousness that’s admitting defeat.
A related but distinct feeling is achieved by none other than Kendrick Lamar, the label’s biggest star and – in the real world – a source of guidance for his young protegee. ‘Wat’s Wrong’ is the song you’ll most remember on first listen, and indeed, the music is fantastic – jazz drums and lazy guitar, Zacari on vocals, a beat Isaiah could tell was next level. Still, it’s Kendrick’s verse that kicks the door off and leaves a note saying you’ve had a visit from the king. “How many souls do you touch a day?” he asks Rashad on the verge of the TDE implosion. “Depending on the way I feel, I might kill everybody around me | Might heal everybody around me, how the wind blow | Open your window, let the debris in, never let me in.” Suck up extremes, he counsels. Ride them. Take the pain. Make the natural highs higher. Lamar’s flow almost runs off the tracks, given the exuberance of his message.
In ‘Bday’, the path to adulthood lies with a church and a brothel on either side, which Isaiah’s caught between. He’s striving for a greyer, more complex outlook. Plus, for the answer to this– how do you speak truth to a bunch of white people when everyone’s conditioned to view hip-hop as a cartoon filled with gold chains, hot pants and #slayqueen comebacks? ‘Dressed Like Rappers’ has a pop at it. The answer being – describe missing your son, your daughter, over a digital pungi and minimal backbeat. Leaving a clear agenda in favour of simple love for family, children, the freedom to say you’re not okay. That being the topic, remember. The search for one.
Consequence of Sound’s Stephen Kearse has remarked that the record “proves itself to be neither an omnidirectional diatribe on the status of black America nor a mythmaking classic. It’s not as ambitious as it could’ve been, but it works due to its sheer expressiveness, one man going through the motions and chronicling them, a tirade in the purest sense.” I kind of agree. On the other hand, these sludgy, hypnotic songs deserve a little more credit. They’re a vibe, for sure. Except they might spike your drink to keep you from leaving, so you never get on the road to being a better artist, partner, parent or human being. Isaiah Rashad’s main skill thus far is writing songs about aimlessness that hit the mark, and holding that up against a State Of The Nation Address, commenting on the value of expecting such a thing to begin with. In its own way, it’s pretty unique.