Isaiah Rashad on coming back from the brink

Isaiah Rashad on coming back from the brink
‘I’ve found a purpose‘ — After a five-year hiatus, the TDE rapper has returned with an album which subverts all expectations. He talks embracing sobriety, his penchant for comic books and why he no longer wants to sell his story.

Isaiah Rashad, Top Dawg Entertainment’s enigmatic Chattanooga-raised outlier, burst onto the scene in 2014 with the clear-headed, confessional ‘Cilvia Demo’ tape, named after the beat-up old Honda Civic he used to cruise around his hometown. ‘Don’t mind the bumper that was missing from my carriage, ugh / It’s poorly tinted but my women not embarrassed’ he raps on ‘Ronnie Drake’. Such humble lyricism endeared him to a generation of listeners raised on larger-than-life, Maybach-riding rap superstars like Kanye, Lil Wayne and Rick Ross, now in need of someone more relatable as they stumbled into adulthood. 

‘Cilvia Demo’ explored Rashad’s damaged relationship with his dad, intergenerational trauma, his mental health and how he coped with his demons, with bars such as ‘My daddy taught me how to drink my pain away / My daddy taught me how to leave somebody’. Fearless introspection was a hallmark of the tape, but it didn’t define it – just as his own struggles didn’t define him. He blended vulnerability with the swaggering, uniquely Southern confidence of greats like Big Boi, Juvenile and Master P. 

Rashad’s next release, and official debut album, 2016’s The Sun’s Tirade, was an even greater crystallisation of his artistic vision, a self-described mix of ‘that Boosie with that boom bap,’ as he raps on ‘Brenda’. The album, which captures Rashad navigating a booze-and-xanax-induced fog, confirmed him as a great in waiting. And then he dropped off the radar.

Anxiety, financial turmoil, and the alcoholism Rashad alluded to in his lyrics pushed him to the brink. In 2019, he finally confided in Anthony ‘Top’ Tiffith, TDE’s founder. A crucial month in rehab followed immediately after, calming the storm. In January last year, he returned to the studio and began work on his sophomore album, The House Is Burning. It’s the first project he’s recorded entirely sober, and it’s his most complete, compelling work yet.

The album subverts expectations. Opener ‘Darkseid’– a reference to the villain of Rashad’s beloved ‘Mister Miracle’ comic series – is replete with dark imagery, but the track’s message is one of doom-defying strength. Whatever was under the bunk bed, I ain’t scared, I’m ready’ he assures us, and himself. It sets the tone for the rest of the project, which unfolds like a series of frames from a comic book, chronicling a windows-down, blunt-sparked midnight drive through America’s Southern rap multiverse. There are nods along the way to legends like Goodie Mob, Missy Elliot, Pimp C, Project Pat and Three Six Mafia.

Arrive at The House Is Burning expecting to find Rashad languishing in a swimming pool of despair and you might catch him partying poolside, gold chain swinging, moonlight bouncing off his gleaming grills. He sounds freer than ever on thunderous, ultra-confident cuts like ‘Lay Wit Ya’ and ‘From the Garden’. He leans into molasses-sweet RnB, allowing his Tennessee drawl to bloom from rapping into singing on ‘Claymore’ and ‘Score’. Elsewhere, the closer and standout track ‘HB2U’ transforms unexpectedly into a dose of psychedelic soul. ‘You are now a human being’ he affirms, leaving his demons in the rearview.

Huck caught up with Rashad to discuss recording while sober, embracing simplicity, comic books as therapy, and more.

Last week The House Is Burning was the world’s number one rap album. It entered the Billboard 200 chart at number seven. After the turbulence of the last five years, how does that feel?

I feel like this is a first step towards where my end goal is. So it feels great to be embraced and stuff; to be celebrated. But I’m also thinking about what I got to do to be exactly where I want to be.

Have you taken the time to absorb and celebrate that success?

Oh, I’ve cried a lot! It wasn’t really about the number one, or any of that type of shit. It was more about getting the shit done to my satisfaction. I knew I was gonna be proud of it. And the reception was so overwhelming, man. Like, we actually did this shit. It’s kinda crazy.

I feel like you’ve really subverted expectations with this album, from ‘Lay Wit Ya’ being a club-ready banger of a first single, when listeners might’ve expected something slow and soulful, to the general fun feel of the songs. Was that a conscious effort, or more reflective of the place you’re in now?

I think this is the first time we’ve had singles… The other times it was just good songs. These were meant to touch more people, instead of being an exclusive listen. That was the challenge, embracing the simplicity of everything, because you grow up trying to be this super rapper, trying to jump leaps and bounds on every verse and all this other shit. You forget just to be a regular person. N****s gotta dance, dawg. You gotta cry, you gotta enjoy yourself. And you don’t always need some super rapped out song to do that.

There’s this idea that alcohol and drugs can be a gateway to creative freedom. You sound freer than ever on the album, and you recorded it entirely sober. What was that experience like?

The challenge is when you’ve been drinking and doing all them shits since you was in college, it’s about retooling your mind to be going through those studio sessions dry. It wasn’t creatively limiting, but I’m a super anxious guy and I have hella heavy anxiety, so to teach myself to relax was the real challenge. Soon as I started relaxing, getting confidence, it was on.

What was the key to that relaxation?

I had to learn how to fucking breathe! Breathing exercises, I had timers on my phone to limit how long I had my phone on. It was really just managing my stresses and anxieties and applying it to the studio. Not having fifteen people at the studio. Not having a gang of influences and a gang of outside forces and opinions. And really just making shit, and being OK with the results. And not taking things so seriously. Every song doesn’t have to be the magnum opus. 

I’ve read that Kenny Beats encouraged you to learn to freestyle too. What did that involve?

I came to him to learn how. Kenny is so accommodating to whoever he’s around. He was doing six-hour sessions with people and getting five, six songs. I got kind of irritated, because I’m only getting one song, maybe one and a half or something. So I’m like, show me what you guys are doing. Show me what I could do to improve this. And he took time out to do it, man. We locked in for like, three, four months, in the studio for three, four days a week. He just helped me learn how to relax. We have common ground, too, and he was just encouraging.

I know ‘don’t overthink shit’ is a Kenny Beats mantra. Was it as simple as that?

That’s what he lives by. He put me in the booth and just turned the mic on and really just said ‘say something’. He’s a Taurus and I’m a Taurus. So it was kind of forceful. And when he said it, I just did it. I don’t really do what nobody tells me to do. But there are a select few people, when they tell me to do something, I can just do it. My mom does shit like that, it gives me a confidence I wouldn’t bestow on myself. So Kenny was really like, ‘we’re not leaving until you finish the verse’. It was like when my mom used to make me read while she was washing dishes or cleaning up the kitchen or whatever. She was like, ‘we’re not going to leave until you finish’. Okay, so let me start reading faster. Let me start rapping faster. Just because you read faster, or rap faster, it doesn’t have to mean you start fucking up the words.

Have you been able to apply the mantra of not overthinking shit to life in general?

Ummm… no! I guess it’s more growing up. Most of the changes I’ve experienced during the five years I’ve not been around in my own spotlight, not the spotlight, are because I’ve tried to grow up a little bit, in every facet of life. I haven’t gotten to where I want to get to but I’m on the way, so I guess it flips into the rapping, too. I’m not taking this shit as a fucking trial. I’m taking it as a blessing. And if you don’t wanna go to the studio for twelve hours, why do that? Shit, now if I want to go to the studio for a few hours just to fuck around, it makes more sense than like pressuring yourself into trying to make a magnum opus or some crazy avant-garde shit, like I said before. I’m from Chattanooga, sometimes I just wanna make some shit about some hoes, not my feelings!

So you’re not quite where you want to be, yet. Is the album more about the journey than the destination?

Hmmm. It’s about manifesting the destination. That’s what the project is about. I made it at a fairly dark point in my life. With my other projects I documented what was going on. With this one I was praying for something better. And it worked.

You made it happen.

Prayer works.

Are you a religious person?

I’m god fearing. I wouldn’t say that I pick up a book all the time. I don’t go listen to nobody talk that often. But I’m definitely god fearing.

What music influenced the album?

I’ve been listening to the same shit and just adding onto it forever. I was listening to Aretha Franklin for the latter half of the album, James Brown, Stevie Wonder. I tried to understand drill music. I think I’ve got it. I started listening to Skepta. Pop Smoke, I got into him as he passed. Fivio Foreign is tight. I was listening to the second Young Stoner Life album. A whole bunch of shit.

In the run up to release, you seemed especially excited to share ‘Headshots’ with listeners. Was that one especially close to your heart?

It was one of my favourite songs when I first made it because I went through a real doubtful phase where I was like, ‘when am I gonna make a song that sounds like one of my old songs?’ I’ve never really wanted to do that, but ‘Headshots’ felt like that. ‘Headshots’ happened and I was like ‘oh, I got an album! If I put out an album, this could be the ear catching shit’. 

In the video for ‘Headshots’ you reference the therapy circle from your time in rehab. What were the most impactful lessons you learnt from your time there?

That alcoholism is a disease and it impacts people in different ways. But I guess really what I got out of it is that the people I have most in common with, and the most normal people to me, are addicts. That was kind of weird. I guess I felt more alone after I left, because everybody was so super normal and open about their bullshit [in rehab], and as divulging as I’d want to be all the time. And you don’t meet those people often. They’re very defined people, very emotional people, the addicts I’ve met, alcoholics and shit. So the video was really a way of telling n****s you’re not alone, I’m not alone.

The album’s opener ‘Darkseid’ is named after a DC comic book villain. Comics have become a passion of yours. How have they helped you, and do they impact your art in other ways?

They’re therapy.

What do you find therapeutic about them?

It’s the same thing as music, depending on the artist and sound. They be going to therapy, telling you about themselves in some way or another. And if you listen well enough, you could bounce some ideas off an invisible wall and get something back. Comics are the same. I can empathise while reading. These people are putting their own personal spins on original characters, and their own stories, or they’re putting their journeys through these characters who’ve already existed for like sixty years, like Batman. The story might be about Batman, but it could be based on what happened with the writer’s family, and he wrapped it up around the character. You might not even see that shit, but it be about their own traumas and experiences. 

All rap is storytelling in one way or another, and those stories are told in different ways. Would you say you’re more of a novelist or poet?

I’d say both.

I find your music quite cryptic on this album. Like the references to your personal life are a lot less direct.

I think so too. I don’t want sympathy listens and I don’t wanna be selling my story. I sell my raps. Even when I go back to thinking about how explicit I used to talk about my dad, or my son’s mom, that shit actually really bothers me. I could have done that better. I could have done that in a more creative way that didn’t put them out there. Because even if you never see them, they hear and it hurts their feelings. I was never out here to do that.

Your relationship with your dad was a key theme in your previous work. On the album it’s not. Have you made peace, not necessarily with him, but with the situation?

I’m just trying not to be him. So I don’t wanna torture him by reminding myself. That shit ain’t important! I have a pretty decent life, so why fucking bash my dad? Even if I feel that way. What kind of person am I trying to be? Even when it comes to sobriety and all that type of shit. Like, I’ve had lapses. I don’t wanna act like I’ve been perfect and shit. But as of recently, the main thing outside of my own wellbeing that I could latch onto was the fact that I’d shared it [the details of addiction and rehab] with people. Kids message me about it now. I don’t wanna be in the news in a couple of years being fucked up. 

It sounds like you’ve absorbed the idea of accountability.

I think I’ve found a social responsibility to latch on to, yessir. I’ve found a purpose.

The House Is Burning is available to listen on most major streaming platforms

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