February 19, 2014

Test Spin: Cilvia Demo, Isaiah Rashad

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Isaiah Rashad is certainly not a household name (yet), but his debut E.P. Cilvia Demo hints at a young rapper who is ready to turn himself into one. Signed last summer by Top Dawg Entertainment (the L.A.-based label that houses Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q and Ab Soul) Rashad was largely a mystery even to the most dedicated and thorough of hip-hop fans. But on Cilvia, the Tennessee-born Rashad exhibits a new voice that was obviously raised on the best of Southern rap. While the guest list is sparse, consisting mostly of a few appearances by his TDE mates, Rashad comfortably holds down the 14-track project and delivers a surprisingly smooth, thoughtful and enjoyable album.

The most obvious comparison for Rashad and Cilvia  is going to be Kendrick and Section.80. However, I find that this tape sits closer to Ab Soul’s less-heralded Longterm Mentality. Both tapes demonstrate young rappers just coming into their own. There are moments of uncertainty — songs that the mature rapper will certainly look back and laugh at — but the promise of an artist who possesses cognizance of his surroundings and fantastic lyrical and rhythmic dexterity is present on both. Rashad and Soul have similar styles too; they rap confidently, but a little quieter, playing with rhythms and dropping numerous references in metaphor-heavy rap. Both also effectively mix the boastful joviality of rap with their deep thoughts, saving their tapes from being the exasperating sermons of J. Cole.

One of the most impressive aspects of the album is how effectively Rashad flicks between flows and style. He is not subtle about it either: “West Savannah” pays homage to ’90s Outkast, while “Brad Jordan” shows love for Scarface (Brad Jordan is Scarface’s real name). Master P and Webbie also get song title shout-outs. While Rashad’s influences are easy to trace, you never feel like he is stealing other rapper’s styles. Instead, akin to Chicago’s Chance the Rapper, all of these styles blend together effortlessly into a distinct sound. It is an incredible achievement, especially at such a young age. At this point in his career, Kendrick was still trying to make himself into the second coming of Lil Wayne.

Album production is handled by a group of 10 producers, most of whom are pretty much total unknowns. Nonetheless, they produce beats that serve their role well, combining a slow Southern sound with quiet piano loops to provide an ideal template for the pensive rapper to work. It is a refreshing reflection of classic Southern beats compared to the assaultive post-Lex Luger trap beats currently emanating from Atlanta. I do look forward to seeing Rashad getting top flight beats hand-made, but for an initial E.P. these are as good as any rapper can ask for.

The actual subject matter of the album is very personal — the distorted 90-second introduction “Hereditary” sets the tone, with Rashad chanting, “My daddy taught me how to drink my pain away / My daddy taught me how to lease somebody.” Rashad’s father, who abandoned him at three, is referenced several times as a source of pain and difficulty. In “Cilvia Demo,” Rashad wonders if his newborn son will look at him the same way that he looked at his father. It is one of the strongest cuts and it showcases his very capable singing on the hook along with his prodigious rhyming (“The hung soul a rapper goes rapping those wrapping woes up /  Defying foes, lying toes, weapons on tuck”).

Demonstrating his flexibility, Rashad has a three track highlight reel juxtaposing songs about weed, race and love. “R.I.P. Kevin Miller” is a Southern rap reference-heavy track built around a catchy hook of “We live for weed and money,” and it is followed by “Ronnie Drake,” which focuses on the death, crime and discrimination that pervade black communities. Finally, the Outkast homage “West Savannah” sees Isaiah singing about falling in love while listening to Southern­playalisticadillacmuzik. Not many artists have the range to rap/sing so thoughtfully on such distinct subjects.

The final track, “Shot You Down,” is a remix of a song Rashad had released last fall and features Jay Rock and Schoolboy Q. All three artists give excellent verses, with Schoolboy taking the cake in reflecting on his growth from felon to rap star and talking about the much delayed Oxymoron. As good as it is though, I think it is a shame that Schoolboy gets the last verse on the album. Given how personal and impressive Cilvia Demo was, Rashad merited the finishing note. Regardless, with such a profound debut E.P., I have no doubt that Isaiah Rashad will have his voice heard again soon.

This album, as well as other tracks from this week’s Test Spins can be spun HERE: