Courtesy of Top Dawg Entertainment

September 12, 2016

TEST SPIN: Isaiah Rashad — The Sun’s Tirade

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Isaiah Rashad has always seemed like a guy caught between two worlds. Back in 2013, the Tennessee native turned heads by signing to Top Dawg Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based label previously exclusive to artists like Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q, rappers raised in the city and deeply indebted to its musical history. And while Rashad operates comfortably in that scene, his blatant reverence for Southern rap and J Dilla-soul mark him as something of an outsider on TDE’s roster. After more than three years on the ever-growing label, the 25 year-old’s role there remains unclear. Even so, he’s one of its most compelling artists — that rare student of rap baring his influences on his sleeve, all the while crafting a signature, vital sound.

Following two and a half years of near radio silence, the Chattanooga MC has returned with The Sun’s Tirade, a 17-track follow-up to 2014’s excellent Cilvia Demo. Confusingly, TDE originally marketed Cilvia as an EP, no doubt under the assumption that a full-length project would follow shortly thereafter. At 14 tracks, that collection played more like a proper studio debut, and — for better and for worse — The Sun’s Tirade acts as the logical sonic and thematic progression from that starting point.

In the press cycle leading up to the album’s release, interviewers and critics alike made fodder of Rashad’s substance abuse problems. A crippling dependency on alcohol and Xanax, the rapper claims, delayed his album and nearly got him dropped from TDE, causing him serious medical and financial issues in the process. Yet painting The Sun’s Tirade as a “rehab” album feels both inaccurate and exploitative — just another case of listeners romanticizing an artist’s personal issues. To those who were listening, Rashad articulated nascent versions of these same dependencies across Cilvia Demo, a record that framed adolescent concerns as a breeding ground for adult problems, like a collection of unwanted companions that grow up alongside us. It’s a bleak headspace in which to make an album, but one brightened by Rashad’s earnest belief in music’s capacity for therapy. “If I get my story to the world,” he sang on “Heavenly Father,” “I wonder if they’d book me for a show.”

In spite of its restricted soundscape and limited pop appeal, Cilvia Demo did, in fact, garner Rashad a core fan base. Sonically, The Sun’s Tirade won’t deter any of those listeners, as it presents only a few left turns away from Rashad’s favored production. Standouts like “Free Lunch” and “Wat’s Wrong” would fit comfortably alongside the hazy, snare-heavy instrumentals of Cilvia Demo, and they showcase an increasingly refined aesthetic that’s not quite like anything else out there. On the few occasions that Tirade drifts toward monotony, Rashad wisely picks up the tempo, effortlessly switching into bluesy crooning on “Rope” and a double-time flow on “Don’t Matter.” At times, though, the track sequencing only serves to highlight the album’s bloat. Tracks like “Bday” and “A lot” amount to little more than filler, adding redundancy to an otherwise balanced album.

Vocally, Rashad is at his best on Tirade when operating within the singsong flows that gave a soulful, comforting edge to “Heavenly Father” and last year’s loosie, “Nelly.” The MC’s singing voice has limited range, but lends a warm, scratchy texture to the production. On “Stuck in the Mud,” Rashad once again showcases his vocal chemistry with label-mate SZA, but the real standout here is “Silkk Da Shocka” — a lullaby of a duet with Syd tha Kyd (of the Internet) that highlights the two vocalists’ ability to fade into the beat while remaining the center of attention. These soft, sobering moments separate Rashad from contemporaries who confuse hedonistic tendencies for depth, and provide meditative focus to an album that might otherwise devolve into a laundry list of anxieties.

If there’s a source of consistent disappointment across The Sun’s Tirade, it’s a distinctive shift away from the incisive lyricism of Cilvia Demo, which felt vital both as confessional and political statement. As a rapper, Rashad’s tight-knit flows give shape to spacey production, effectively providing rhythm to an otherwise ambient assortment of sounds. It’s a singular ability that remains intact here, but the lyrics themselves often fail to draw blood, providing a void that Kendrick only accentuates with his whirlwind of a feature on “Wat’s Wrong.” Even so, it’s good to have Rashad back, and The Sun’s Tirade presents another compelling chapter to a story that feels like it’s only just getting started.

Chris Stanton is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]