Isaiah Rashad crosses generational boundaries and plumbs the depths of his psyche on the excellent "Sun's Tirade."
It's all too perfect that, amidst a turbulent month for generational debates in hip hop, Isaiah Rashad dropped an album that's interspersed with skits delivered by an old head. "Bro, you was born in 1991 my n*gga," he says in one, "that's weird dog, it's creepy man," elsewhere calling out "complicated ass young motherfuckers" like Rashad, lamenting his album delays, and recounting his father's disbelief when hearing Cilvia Demo's robbery stories. The age difference, the disparity in rapping styles, the inability to understand the actions and motivations of the youth-- all of the typical young vs. old stuff is in there. The funny thing is that those skits are delivered by Dave Free, the TDE producer who's only 30, just five years older than Rashad. I'm unsure if they played up his crotchetiness for effect, or if Dave is truly this old of a soul, but his contributions emphasize the cross-generational aspect of The Sun's Tirade that may be its greatest strength.
Upon the release of Cilvia back in January 2014, Rashad garnered many comparisons to Southern legends Outkast, Scarface, and UGK, all of whom he referenced in either lyrics or song titles. However, very few reviews drew connections between Rashad and the other Southern rappers he name-dropped on the album, Webbie and Master P (the latter of whom's brother was eulogized on "RIP Kevin Miller"). Those guys rose to prominence just a few years after 'Kast, 'Face, and UGK, and aren't as frequently lauded for their lyrical gifts, but they're just as essential to Rashad's style and outlook. It may seem sacrilegious for a member of lyrical powerhouse TDE to hold up "Independent" as a key touchstone, but on The Sun's Tirade, he hammers his point home with a mission statement, declaring that he's mixing "Boosie with that boom-bap."
On the surface, Rashad may seem like part of that current class of 30-and-younger rappers who seem to wish they were around two decades earlier-- the Pro Eras, Big K.R.I.T.s, Astros, and Bishop Nehrus-- but despite sharing their love for jazz and classic-sounding drums, he's not nearly as cynical or narrow-minded. He punctuates the mostly retro album with "Park," "A Lot," and "AA," a trio of modern, but understated songs that recall Kodak Black's Lil BIG Pac more than anything that came out in '96, and on the latter track, even compares himself to the two big features Kodak got on that tape. "Size of my cup, n*gga I'm Gucci/Sides of my hair, n*gga I'm Boosie" may speak more to addiction and personal style than musical influence, but seeing as both rappers' names pop up elsewhere on the album ("Trust me I feel like the Wop" on "Park"), it's clear that they're right up there alongside Andre 3000 and Big Boi on Rashad's Rap Mount Rushmore. Going even further afield from the '90s canon, he takes a minute on the decidedly jazzy "Tity And Dolla" to cosign current public enemy number one of old heads, Lil Yachty. Rashad may work predominantly with sounds that are associated with more "serious" hip hop (or "conscious," or "lyrical," or whatever, if you're still using those terms), but unlike his contemporaries who also hearken back to the "golden age," he doesn't position it as superior to what directly followed, or what's currently swallowing it up whole. Rashad just seems to genuinely enjoy crisp, smokey jazz-rap, and he happens to really fucking good at it.
As the meandering sax and keyboard lines of "4 Da Squaw" kick in, Rashad unveils a heavy-lidded delivery that only popped up in Cilvia's most low-key moments, but persists for the vast majority of The Sun's Tirade. It fits the dimly-lit jazz tracks perfectly, but when Rashad's vocals contrast with more turnt fare like "A Lot," they can seem lazy or unmotivated at times. This does reinforce the fact that the album centers around Rashad's past addiction to alcohol and xanax, two downers that when combined, make you just as sluggish as his voice sounds. "Pop a xanny, make your problems go away," goes the refrain in the second half of "Stuck In The Mud," with Rashad effortlessly slipping into a sort of half-singing that emerges quite frequently out of his lackadaisical cadences-- although his words are often carefree, his groggy voice brings everything back down, highlighting the fact that they're the inebriated sentiments of someone who can't control themselves. Rashad focuses more on showing us the effects of addiction rather than telling us, making music that's not at all preachy, and instead relies on a well-curated mood to get its point across.
The Sun's Tirade features the work of 21 distinct producers across its 17 tracks, but you could easily mistake it for a one-producer project. Sampling is used much more sparingly than it was on Cilvia, and instead, the album relies heavily on the same live instrument setup: a core of spacey Wurlitzer keyboards and smooth bass that recalls Dungeon Family's Preston Crump, occasionally accompanied by either wah-wah'd out electric guitar or saxophone. I still haven't been able to find the album's personnel credits, but it seems likely that Rashad assembled a group of session musicians, then brought on producers as consultants and/or drum programmers for individual tracks. This means that the album supplies a variety of grooves-- most notably, the helter skelter ones that appear on "Rope" and "Don't Matter"-- while maintaining a very consistent vibe throughout. As opposed to the more untethered free jazz feel of To Pimp A Butterfly, The Sun's Tirade veers towards the more tranquil side of the genre, but always has a bit of unresolved tension lurking under the surface, which is a perfect parallel for getting fucked up day in and day out: the substances may relax you, but they also emphasize haunting feelings of increased reliance and self-doubt.
In its focus, depth, and sound, The Sun's Tirade is a definite step up from its predecessor, which showed remarkable promise but wasn't the most listenable full project. This album's still a bit lengthy, but in the way that most of TDE's best projects are-- immersive and intoxicating rather than unfocused and meandering. Rashad is developing into one of those rappers who wears his influences on his sleeves, but still manages to keep things unique, tied to the present day, and sounding distinctly like himself at all times. Unmistakable strains of Outkast, Goodie Mob, A Tribe Called Quest, and Digable Planets run through this album's music, but Rashad's still very much on his "Webbie flow' and is unafraid to revel in modernity, throwing slo-mo DJ Mustard hi-hats on "Dressed Like Rappers," comparing himself to Nicki Minaj, and using famous Gucci Mane quote "lost in the sauce" on "BDay." His is the type of mind we need more of in young rappers these days: reverent of and knowledgeable about golden age artists, but unafraid to rank them next to (or even below) the less historically celebrated rappers that followed. The Sun's Tirade uses the breadth of Rashad's taste to the distinct ends of exorcising his addiction, and does so very effectively, but I'm already itching to find out what he'll do with his impeccable taste and talent now that he's out of the woods.