It seems as if Isaiah Rashad only makes comeback albums. His last record—2016’s patient, engrossing The Sun’s Tirade, released two and a half years after the debut mixtape that marked him as a star in waiting—opened with a voicemail from the exasperated president of Rashad’s record label, Top Dawg Entertainment: “The fact that I still don’t have your goddamn album… you don’t care that they wanna hear your next shit? You just that good, huh?” At the time, the Chattanooga native cited addictions to alcohol and Xanax for his disappearance from public life and his decision not to capitalize on Cilvia Demo’s momentum; he swore he’d be more prolific going forward. That was five years ago.
Rashad’s new LP, The House Is Burning, comes after a period that included stints in near-poverty and in an Orange County rehab facility; it opens with the rapper noting, slyly, that he “just came back/See, I done been dead for real.” But Rashad is not given to the sort of longform, linear autobiography that would yield a narrative album about his experience. Instead, Burning projects newfound poise and even joy through a sophisticated collage. Rashad’s collection of references and phrases plays like the inside of a jumbled but vibrant brain.
Dating back to Cilvia Demo, Rashad’s music has been full of tributes to older, mostly Southern musicians who came before him. (That record includes songs named after the Baton Rouge rapper Webbie and Master P’s late brother, Kevin Miller; The Sun’s Tirade has “Silkk da Shocka,” to say nothing of the innumerable interpolations of lyrics and melody that dot Rashad’s music.) This has very occasionally given his work an artificial aftertaste, the musical equivalent of a friendship built on shared interest alone. But more often than not, Rashad has been able to render these elements in his music the way they appear in one’s life: as important touchstones but warped by our own experience of them.
To this point, Burning not only makes shrewd use of sampled songs by Project Pat (“RIP Young”) and Three 6 Mafia (the irresistible, Duke Deuce-featuring “Lay Wit Ya”), but in some ways climaxes with “Chad,” which is named after the late Pimp C and builds its chorus around a line from his “Big Pimpin’” verse. “Chad” does not sound like a UGK song per se—the cascading vocal run Rashad uses to open the final verse is his alone—but rather like one made by a tortured kid who grew up with that group’s music, pained but still posturing.
At times, Rashad sticks to the sort of clipped staccato flows that were en vogue when he debuted back in 2014 (see especially the Lil Uzi Vert collaboration “From the Garden”). But more reflective of the album’s mood are the songs that flirt with or fully embrace R&B. The most explicit example of this is the slinking “Score,” which pairs him with 6LACK and his second-wave TDE compatriot SZA, but there is also “Claymore,” which features the St. Louis rapper Smino and sounds as if it might fit even better on one of his albums. Rashad is a very effective writer in this mode. He has a gift for writing in aphorisms that he twists and pinches just enough to sound foreign—the verses are legible enough for listeners to project themselves onto, but specific enough to be Rashad’s own.
That Trojan Horsing of vivid detail into recognizable templates is the crux of Rashad’s music. Whether he is borrowing from his old iPods or from contemporary radio, many of his songs sound as if they began as demos of Rashad trying out someone else’s style. But the blueprints are quickly filled in with new variations, old plans crossed out, notes crowding the margins. If you heard “Don’t Shoot” from a distance it might sound as if Rashad had simply settled into a pleasant autopilot; on closer inspection, the writing is airtight in its economy, acrobatic in its most technical moments. That is Isaiah Rashad in microcosm: someone whose unassuming affect obscures ghastly scars—someone who’s walked through hell and returned with a shrug.
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