Released: 28 January 2014 (TDE)
By Adam Wood
It can’t be easy to be the new member of Top Dawg Entertainment. This is a difficult situation compacted tenfold by the fact that Isaiah Rashad is a rapper, whereas the likes of SZA is a so-called “songstress,” a vocalist recruited mostly to handle hooks and choruses. Isaiah Rashad, though part of TDE, isn’t a part of Black Hippy, the more exclusive subset of TDE that includes Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, and of course King Kendrick. Contrary to what Jack Black might have told you in School of Rock, being “part of the band” doesn’t make you part of the band. Isaiah Rashad has everything to prove, with critics doubting whether he really belongs in the elite coalition of rappers and his label-mates excluding him from their elite group. With his first official release, debut EP Cilvia Demo, Isaiah Rashad is faced with his introduction into the real rap game.
Perhaps most important for Rashad is the task of finding his niche within TDE. Clearly, Kendrick is king; he will not be usurped. He is the one who can afford to be brash, who can deservedly put the entire rap game on blast and walk away unscathed. Jay Rock is the resident thug, a role made formal after he was voted Most Hood rapper in the game by XXL Magazine in 2010. Ab-Soul is the romantic, slightly crazed conspiracy theorist, who’s all about the Illuminati, his chakras, and the pineal gland. Schoolboy is the party man of the group, the real drug-user, the one who puts out banger after banger. What does that leave Isaiah Rashad? Given this release, it appears that Isaiah has embraced the intelligent, thoughtful act role, thriving on introspection, laid-back vibes, and precise verses.
A 14-track release, only three of which were released prior to the official album’s release, one could justifiably call the Cilvia Demo a full album, rather than an EP. But one gets the feeling that Isaiah felt the need to craft his own sound more fully before putting his name on a studio album, particularly given the strength of his TDE associates’ debut releases. That search is very apparent on this EP, with influences clearly ranging from Outkast (most strongly) to Kendrick himself to Jay-Z and Scarface. The one consistent aspect of the release, and it’s a major one, is the very laid-back, hazy atmosphere of all the songs, regardless of how hard Isaiah himself is spitting. Rashad introduces himself and his apparently signature style of singing his hooks in a sort of aimless melody on intro track “Hereditary;” it’s the sort of song that Future has made famous in which the listener can’t really tell if he’s rapping, singing, or mumbling. Except Isaiah Rashad does it well, and without a mind-numbing use of auto-tune. Rashad’s delivery itself is stellar as he explores the age-old story of fucking a girl with a simple three-word flow on “Webbie Flow,” accentuated by a gloriously fuzzy beat. Rashad clearly has no issue with confidence, opening the track with a delightful “Baby can you sucky on my dick, I know it’s big enough.” From most other rappers this would come across as crass; while Rashad doesn’t entirely avoid it, something about his southern drawl makes it sound like a fairly natural thing to say – a feat in itself. The next tracks, “Hereditary” and “R.I.P. Kevin Miller,” continues a strong opening streak from Rashad as he raps about women and weed over a casual beat and growing more and more into a confident delivery on both choruses and verses. The beats continue to take a backseat to Rashad himself, a welcome return to the roots of hip-hop in the face of certain high-profile recent releases dominated by the boastful ideals of EDM. That’s not to say the beats are anything to be scoffed at; though at times it may get monotonous at times, relying too heavily on drugged-out synths and piano loops, they are well-made to suit the needs of Rashad, allowing him to gracefully coast across his musical backdrop rather than drown in it.
Throughout the rest of the EP, Rashad expands on the topics of bitches, drugs, and money without sounding overly repetitive (he doesn’t entirely avoid it). This is largely due to his near-conversational tone, as he comes across as highly conflicted and contemplative over the drug lifestyle and his interactions with women and money. While Rashad is boastful in places, he also delivers lines such as “I’m just hoping that she praying while she down on her knees, see I often treat those hoes like their fathers would be.” It’s a logical conundrum for a 21-year-old rapper with a son to be in, caught up in the world of a young adult, faced with drugs and groupies, and aspiring to be a part of the real world as a responsible adult. It’s a coming-of-age tale, if a more subtle one than the one well-advertised on Kendrick’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. Even if you do begin to get tired of Rashad’s content, his delivery and flow remain consistently jaw-droppingly good, as he explores his own cadence and inflection with ease and total command. It’s the kind of rapping that is simply fun to listen to in and of itself.
Album highlights “Tranquility,” “Menthol,” and “Heavenly Father” showcase Rashad’s soulful vocal abilities and introspective qualities as he considers the conflicting messages kids receive growing up on the streets, which reveals a horribly dark world but promises fame, fortune, and (most importantly) safety. Rashad’s chorus intones, “Thank god for the shooter, and thank god for the leader,” a highly significant line for the mixed aspirations and influences to which kids born on the “streets” are introduced. “Menthol” uses one of the album’s sparse features on female vocalist Jean Deaux spectacularly, allowing both artists to explore the development of a troubled relationship. In my personal favorite track on the album, “Heavenly Father,” Rashad seeks for purpose in his life given the absence of God in his life; he craves self-direction and answers to his questions, though none are forthcoming.
The EP ends with its longest track and its only high-profile features, with Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock contributing verses to Rashad’s breakout single “I Shot U Down.” Though Schoolboy and Jay Rock do their thing terrifically, I actually preferred the original version of the track, as I it showcases Rashad’s anger in a way that some of his other tracks do not. Many of the songs on this EP exist too far on either end of the spectrum, coming across as either too dulled emotionally or too forced into the realms of contemplation. In too few places across this album does Rashad express himself as purposefully and effectively as he does when he simply states, “I feel like talking my shit.” That, to me, is the lasting message from this EP: let Rashad do what he does. He is swimming in talent, and clearly fits in with his more illustrious label-mates; all that remains is for him to hone his sound and focus his message more entirely. I could easily see him going down the Kendrick route conceptually, exploring a certain aspect of his own life or the street experience across the course of an entire album. He comes close here, but was ultimately too distracted (though not in a bad way) by his own sonic and emotional exploration.
Favorite Tracks: Soliloquy, Menthol (feat. Jean Deaux), Heavenly Father, I Shot U Down (Remix) (Feat Jay Rock and Schoolboy Q)
Rating: Loved It