Rejoice! Isaiah Rashad finally got out of bed, and his new album The Sun’s Tirade sounds like he recorded the whole thing not long afterwards. Hailing from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Rashad is signed to Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), the label for California superstars Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q. The rest of their Black Hippy collective, rappers Jay Rock and Ab-Soul, also call the label home as well as lesser-known artists like SZA and Lance Skiiiwalker. TDE has made a name for itself through the astronomical critical and commercial success of Kendrick and Q, a reputation that was shored up with the release of Isaiah Rashad’s 2014 EP Cilvia Demo. Cilvia was Rashad’s first widely available body of work, and showcased a laid-back, playful rapper and singer with an ear for soulful production and a willingness to tackle subjects like depression and heartbreak in his songs. I was one of many who listened to the album on repeat and quickly became a fan of the guy who wasn’t really doing anything new, but was rather doing the old really, really well.
Fast-forward two years. It’s 2016, and nobody has heard anything from Isaiah Rashad in a long time, both in terms of music and otherwise. After the release of Cilvia Demo, he supported labelmate ScHoolboy Q on tour behind Q’s 2014 album Oxymoron. Thanks mostly to interviews that Rashad gave later, it became known that upon the conclusion of the tour, he had become addicted to xanax and alcohol. It also came to light that problems with these substances not only delayed his work on the album that would later be The Sun’s Tirade, but also nearly caused him to be dropped by his label on three separate occasions. Unsurprisingly, this journey of struggle and redemption is the focus of the new album.
The Sun’s Tirade begins with a voicemail from Dave Free, berating Rashad for the delay of the album. It’s a revealing look at the situation behind the scenes, and it is not the last time Free shows up. In fact, voicemails from the labelhead are peppered throughout Tirade, all of them expressing frustration, anger and confusion about why Rashad is taking so long, why he can’t seem to pick a topic for the album, and even the age of the women Rashad is with. On one hand, the prodding evidently did it’s job as we now have another body of work to enjoy. On the other, though, I don’t think Rashad quite satisfied Free’s griping about picking a topic and sticking with it.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve been spoiled by TDE’s latest releases (Kendrick’s untitled, unmastered and Q’s Blank Face LP), but I’ve come to expect work that is at once beautiful, harsh, inviting and disturbing. Simply put, The Sun’s Tirade doesn’t quite live up to the standard the TDE has been successfully setting.
That bar is a very high one, though. Compared to the general body of Hip-Hop and Rap releases so far this year, even since the release of Cilvia Demo and Oxymoron, this album is good. Rashad continues to be the artist we saw on Cilvia and delivers a very solid, impressive body of work. I think that he could have pushed himself out of his own comfort zone a little more, but Rashad’s comfort zone is still so damn good that I hesitate to criticize him too harshly for staying there.
Much of this album sounds like Rashad set the mic up right next to his bed and pressed ‘record’ just after silencing his alarm. His flow and delivery are often slurred or mumbled, oftentimes making it difficult to discern exactly what’s being said. While this style may hinder coherence, it most certainly allows Rashad to set up the relaxed, dreamy vibe of Tirade. Many of the beats on the album sound so similar that it can be difficult to tell one song from another--sugary, shimmering piano and guitar swimming in the background over bright, no-nonsense snare and bass. Sometimes brass instruments show up in the mix, like the beautiful saxophone on Brenda. Sometimes the drums get a little more active, like on the standout track Don’t Matter, which is one of the only high-energy moments on the album. On A Lot, Rashad takes a stab at a beat from Mike WiLL Made-It, the superproducer in charge of Atlanta’s Ear Drummer Records, and it does not go well. The beat sounds like something Rae Sremmurd passed on, and Rashad doesn’t deem it necessary to wake up the flow even a little bit to complement the rapid-fire hi-hats that Mike WiLL provides.
The best song on the album is the second track, 4r Da Squaw. Anchored by a simultaneously whimsical and sober chorus, the song is a perfect showcase of Rashad at his best. Centered around his role as a father and provider, Rashad juxtaposes the drinking problem that was eroding him with the innocent and simple fear of his young son, the fear of growing up. Rashad is paying his bills and supporting his mom, and I’d like to hear another rapper make baby talk sound this good. The song Rope//rosegold finds Rashad lamenting the loss of friends and singing the blues for his crying father. Whether the rope mentioned in the chorus is meant to be interpreted as a means for salvation or self-destruction is left in ambiguity, and the line “Like nowadays I barely know myself / Thank God I found this rope” stayed with me long after listening.
There are a lot of really good songs on The Sun’s Tirade that I haven’t mentioned so far (Kendrick blessed Wat’s Wrong with a typically mind-boggling verse and SZA’s vocals on Stuck In The Mud are wonderful), but there is also way too much filler. Rashad is a rapper who’s all about the vibe, and while that’s perfect for an album to throw on in the car or to chill out to, it can get old on an album that’s seventeen tracks long. Especially with the second half of the album, a lot of these songs could have been cut and would have left a much more succinct, cohesive project. Maybe Rashad was trying to compensate for the delay of the album. Maybe seventeen was how many Dave Free demanded, which seems possible given the lengths of Kendrick and Q’s albums (To Pimp a Butterfly is sixteen tracks long; Blank Face LP is seventeen). The difference is that both of those albums set a singular tone and did it with sixteen or seventeen unique tracks that showcased multiple styles of rapping and production while discussing various subjects in depth. The Sun’s Tirade is a good album. If you liked Cilvia Demo, you’ll probably love this. However, Isaiah Rashad could have done a lot more in terms of demonstrating his versatility and proving that his songs are good for more than background music. Vibes are great, but so is substance. Maybe on his next work he’ll get all the way out of bed, maybe even go outside.