Isaiah Rashad’s Low-Key Beauty
Isaiah Rashad disappears. This can be a problem. Rashad, Top Dawg Entertainment’s sole Southern rap representative, made his official debut album, 2016’s The Sun’s Tirade, after issues with Xanax and alcohol that almost cost him his label deal. Then Rashad simply vanished from rap for five years. As the rest of the world marched on, Rashad went broke, spent months couch-surfing, and turned things around with a stint in rehab. A few years ago, at a Jay Rock record-release show in Los Angeles, I was genuinely surprised to see Rashad put in a guest appearance, even though every non-Kendrick TDE rapper came out onstage that day. I had just accepted the idea that Isaiah Rashad was in the wilderness.
Even when he’s operating at peak capacity, Isaiah Rashad does not demand your attention. He’s always been a low-key, vibes-first rapper, which must be a difficult thing to be when you’re part of the same small roster as a once-in-a-generation figure like Kendrick Lamar. Rashad has talked about addiction, anxiety, and panic attacks, but he rarely addresses those things head-on in his music. Instead, Rashad deals with big life moments via sly illusion, letting them drift out casually. This is his way, and it’s part of the reason that he can be taken for granted so easily. Last week, Isaiah Rashad released The House Is Burning, his first album in the five years since The Sun’s Tirade. Rashad’s reemergence seems like it should be an event, but it’s really not. Instead, it’s just a very good rap album. That’s fine. That’s better, honestly.
The House Is Burning sounds like an album — a cohesive and extended mood piece. The songs dissolve into one another in ways that make sense. The album covers plenty of aesthetic ground, from blissed-out R&B drift to echo-drenched retro-crunk thuds, but these tracks are all of a piece with one another. Beyond the omnipresent trap drum patterns, Isaiah Rashad hasn’t done much to keep his music in conversation with everything else that’s happening in rap right now. Instead, he makes constant allusions to past generations of Southern rap. He quotes Pimp C and Goodie Mob, and Project Pat’s sampled voice echoes through. Even when younger rappers appear on The House Is Burning, they serve that vibe — Duke Deuce bringing wild-eyed ’90s-Memphis energy to “Lay Wit Ya,” Lil Uzi Vert veering all over the slow-crawl bassline of “From The Garden.”
On his own album, Isaiah Rashad makes for an oddly low-key presence, just as he always has. It’s a shame that the term “mumble-rap” has become such a lazy catchall for a certain strand of rap music, since Rashad works as a prime example for how well a mumbled delivery can work on a rap song. Rashad’s got a hoarse drawl, and he raps in a distracted murmur, sometimes trailing off mid-line or interrupting himself with giggles. But Rashad’s delivery is sharp and rhythmically composed, and he switches up flows with enviably easy fluidity. On The House Is Burning, Rashad also sings a whole lot — not Auto-Tuned half-melodies but bluesy croaks that fit in beautifully alongside the voices of SZA and 6LACK.
There’s a lot that Isaiah Rashad could rap about. In the time since The Sun’s Tirade, rap in general has made a sharp turn in subject matter. These days, rappers are more likely than ever to talk about drugs or depression from a vulnerable, confessional place. But Rashad never dramatizes his own battles. Instead, he mentions them almost as asides, giving them a few words before moving onto something else. At one point, he says, “You got some baggage, emotions/ Crash and control issues/ Lagging and loading/ Heart was too open.” It sounds like he’s talking to himself.
In a recent FADER cover story, Rashad told writer Jeff Weiss, “I’m swimming in the trauma, baby.” That’s a great line, and it could’ve been a great lyric, but that’s not really how Isaiah Rashad operates. Instead, he tells life stories through minute detail: “Check my hunnids, check my onion, we watch cable at my auntie’s/ ‘Cause my papa wasn’t trappin’, but my uncle up to somethin’.” He moves from flex to heartbreak without letting himself pause to think about it: “I got a crib bigger than Budapest/ And the shots ain’t bringin’ my soldier back,” “I just put a blades on a bulletproof Range, I could cripple Liu Kang, it’s on-on/ Via that drank, I ain’t feeling my face, I ain’t feeling no pain, it’s on-on.”
Much of the time, Rashad avoids rapping too much at all. He keeps his verses short and concise, and he leaves vast pauses in his lovely sung hooks. Rashad gives plenty of space to his guests, and doesn’t seem to mind much if, say, an on-fire Smino overshadows him on his own song. He keeps his voice low in the mix, letting it become part of a musical landscape alongside harps and guitars and vast, overwhelming basslines. The House Is Burning mostly works as a mood piece, a woozily pretty dive into a warm and comforting sonic sensibility. On that level, it’s pretty great. It’s been a while since a big-name rapper has released an album that worked this well as soundtrack music for a sunny afternoon.
In the last decade, Top Dawg Entertainment established itself as the kind of label that specializes in major statements. These days, though, TDE doesn’t release that much music; The House Is Burning is the first TDE full-length of 2021. Kendrick Lamar is missing in action. Other major TDE talents like SZA and Schoolboy Q don’t seem that interested in making major statements of their own right now. Maybe that sense of expectation has come to work against TDE. (When TDE started off the Isaiah Rashad album rollout, some people were disappointed that it wasn’t Kendrick.) But the people who work at TDE know how to make an album sound, and that gift works beautifully for Isaiah Rashad’s style. The House Is Burning is not a major statement, and it doesn’t try to be one. It’s simply an album that sounds great. Plenty of days, I’d rather have an album like that than another major statement.
1. RU$H & Jay Nice – “Ryu And Ken”
“Took a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg in a Harvard dining hall. He said he was tired of y’all.” I’m tired of Mark Zuckerberg, but that’s an unbelievably slick line. RU$H and Jay Nice’s whole Famili 2 EP is gorgeous, but this one really takes me away.
2. Benny The Butcher – “Remember Me”
The Griselda guys never sound like they’re trying to get played on the radio. They play their lane, and that lane works. Here, though, Benny sounds like he’s trying to get played on the radio in 2002. I love that.
3. Pink Siifu – “Bussin’ (Cold)” (Feat. Turich Benjy)
Pink Siifu’s whole GUMBO’! album works in many of the same ways as Isaiah Rashad’s The House Is Burning. Maybe we’re on the cusp of a whole new wave of vibes-first rap records. I hope so.
4. Stove God Cook$ – “Run It Up”
I love the feeling when a beat starts, and you can just hear how badly the rapper wants to start shredding it.
5. Morray – “Trenches (Remix)” (Feat. Polo G)
I love these rapper/singer combinations where the singer is basically rapping and the rapper is basically singing.