Feature by Jorge Sibaja
Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) has some of today’s most popular hip-hop artists under their label; the wildly-popular hip-hop icon Kendrick Lamar, the energetic Schoolboy Q, aggressive Jay Rock, and lyrically adept Ab-Soul. However, there is one name that hasn’t received quite enough attention despite the tremendous music that he has put out since signing to TDE: Isaiah Rashad.
Rashad was born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He began rapping in high school, and continued doing so in college, eventually dropping out to pursue music as a full-time career. Rashad’s older music is fairly hard to come by, but there are a couple of music collections out there on the internet that Rashad made prior to his TDE signing. One such is Fly Times, Cool Places, a mini-project that Rashad made in 2009. Rashad’s influences are easily identifiable on the project, as there are plenty of Lil Wayne-esque auto tune bars and Outkast-influenced hooks and instrumentals. However, the project as a whole was largely unfinished, lacking mastering and a coherent style. A second unofficial mixtape, compiled in 2013, contained an assortment of songs that Rashad had previously released on his Soundcloud. On this project, the molasses-slow cool that Rashad exudes is palpable, and his thoughtful rhymes reveal the kind of display he would put on in his first official album, Cilvia Demo.
Rashad first received some mainstream attention when he appeared in TDE’s BET Cypher in 2013, displaying his sharp tongue and unorthodox, melodic style of rapping. Cilvia Demo was released at the end of January the following year, and it was almost entirely slept on. Few people, if any, gave a close listen to Rashad’s album. I only happened to download it after watching a music video for “Heavenly Father,” a track from the album. I was struck by the pensiveness of the music, and was drawn to the subdued yet apparent emotionality that the song was saturated with. There were no ostentatious lines, nor aggressive bravado. Rashad appeared as just a man, dealing with the consequences of his actions, and admitting his insecurities about faith and people. Cilvia Demo proved to contain that same jarring and grounding plurality of emotion and more.
At its core, Cilvia Demo is a nostalgic album, a recollection and retelling of stories that Rashad has accumulated. In this hazy recollection, however, Rashad reveals a heavy emotionality that is immensely relatable. That in itself is the reason why Rashad is such a wonderful artist, and undoubtedly deserves more attention from hip-hop fans and music fans alike. He presents his unassuming life and elevates it for consideration by his listeners. His vulnerability is especially keen in those darker areas of emotionality -- recognizing the effect the absence of his father has played in his development, and the open admittal of the use of drugs in order to cope and simultaneously escape from his past. He continuously grapples with being a black man in America, conveying his ambivalence about his position in the world with angry lines, mixed in with melancholic songs that reveal his pain and uncertain position in life.
Rashad has successfully tapped into a vein of nostalgic relatability, and through his instrumentals and lyrics, successfully elicits empathy from his listeners. One friend of mine described experiencing Isaiah Rashad’s music as returning from a night of debauchery with friends, sitting down, slowly collecting yourself and attempting to recall the distant memories of what occurred. I would echo that characterization and further claim that Rashad creates a warmth of familiarity from a relatable artist - an artist that presents himself as a fallible man. A man who happens to be a rapper, but a man who has the same problems, self-doubt, and vices that all of us have.
Rashad released a few singles in 2015, including “Nelly”, a song that perfectly summarizes the sort of aesthetic most of Rashad’s music contains. It is intensely personal, revealing restrained self-doubt while touching on the dynamic of Isaiah’s family, his love life, and in sum creates a glum picture of life. In the midst of that intense emotionality is a celebration of life, despite the hardships that life entails. It is that beautiful dichotomy that makes Isaiah Rashad such a compelling artist, and one that deserves far more attention for the brilliantly intimate experience that he creates for his listeners.