Isaiah Rashad: Slept On or Sought After?
by Noah Adaikkalam
Isaiah Rashad had a pretty typical introduction to the game, dropping a mixtape before putting together his first album under Top Dawg Entertainment, “Cilvia Demo,” which dropped in 2014. The response that Rashad was met with was unanticipated. A fan base quickly appeared, and money flew in.
Shane Ryu of DJ booth writes in “An Ode to Isaiah Rashad: Five Years of the ‘Cilvia Demo’” that at the time, the 22-year-old was blindsided: “He later revealed on the Juan Epstein podcast that he developed a Xanax and alcohol addiction while touring with ScHoolboy Q for Oxymoron. He landed in the hospital after tearing his stomach lining, and almost got dropped from TDE on multiple occasions”. It makes sense that Ryu goes on to call “Cilvia Demo” “a journey of self-discovery with no particular destination in mind” as the sudden influx of resources almost led to his destruction. I view it as a project of self-discovery, Rashad using his music as a way to process his feelings and make it out of Chattanooga, Tennessee simultaneously. I think that’s an apt description, his lyricism containing a dark, but more importantly, honest self-reflection that sets him apart from the rest of the rap game.
It is also the solidification of his swinging, unorthodox flow, something that resembles a half-full bottle bobbing up and down in the ocean. “Piece of a Kid,” his 2013 mixtape that came out a year prior, is just a bit more confused and a bit more undecided. That is not where Rashad is now.
In 2016, his sophomore album dropped, “The Sun’s Tirade” and we got to see truly how great Zay is. The album seems to be a potent, stormy mirror that Rashad stared unflinchingly into. It makes the honesty on “Cilvia Demo” fade into the distance as he cuts directly into himself and gives even more to the listener. He examines his depression and his failures as a father, referencing the role that his addiction and his job has played in both of those things. The anger, anxiety, and depression from his previous project are still there; he knows why he’s rapping. This second project, however, illustrates a new understanding: despite the freedom he’s found and the ability to escape the hometown that he ran from, he is beginning to realize that the demons are his, not Chattanooga’s.
Both projects were received fantastically by those who found them. Everybody from Pitchfork to Hip Hop DX to Metacritic loved what he did. All three of the articles specifically note his music’s Southern sound, a sort of slow, rolling jazz blues fusion that can only rise out of Magnolia trees and biscuits. The musicality, along with his honest lyricism, carves a place for him. Yet, a general disinterest seemed to linger and prevent him from climbing his way up alongside the other artists on his label.
Zay has dropped one or two tracks here and there, nothing fully complied or significant. One of those two was an untitled song with Goldlink that I love. The see-sawing sounds of their music align perfectly. In “The Sun’s Tirade,” there was a handful of short skits between him and his producer, seemingly between Cilvia and Tirade, giving him deadlines and asking him where the next project is. It’s a coincidence that we are coming up on three years since “The Sun’s Tirade” was dropped.
Zay’s music has lived one step below the spotlight seemingly, never being nominated for big-name awards, and living somewhat washed out by the other names on his label (Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, SZA). But he feels too big to be able to slip away as he did.
He’s been pretty quiet for almost three years now. Sometimes he’ll preview a track or two on his Instagram live, but for the most part, fans are kept in the dark. In an interview with HotNewHipHop on at the beginning of this year, he talked about the release of an upcoming album, but only really mentioned there was going to be a feature with XXXTentatcion’s adlib, and that it might be his last album. There was no mention of anything beyond that, the article ending speculating that it should come out sometime this year.
I’m not really satisfied with that. “The Sun’s Tirade” played a big role at the time that I found it, a lot of afternoons spent in my feelings in that distinct highschool manner of questioning and fearing everything. Before that, “Pieces of a Kid” hit me as I transitioned from house to house earlier in my life. His music is there for you when your life gets turbulent. But it seems he didn’t really reach people beyond that. And with a time of two or three years between projects, the patience of listeners wears thin. Maybe he lost us because battling his own demons was more important than battling ours.