Album Review: Isaiah Rashad – The Sun’s Tirade

Top Dawg Entertainment rapper's debut record carefully refines his experimental aesthetic




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Isaiah Rashad could easily be a southern rap revivalist: He’s from Chattanooga, he’s rapped over “Elevators”, a slew of his songs allude to southern rappers (“Nelly”, “RIP Kevin Miller”, “Webbie Flow”), and he loved his first car enough to name his debut EP after it. Package these traits together and leave them in the right blogger’s inbox, and the car drives itself. Luckily, Rashad insists on keeping his hands on the wheel. The Sun’s Tirade, the follow-up to 2014’s Cilvia Demo, is a careful refinement of his previous work, hunkering down instead of scaling up. The result is an album that’s liberated from concerns about regions and charts and homages, giving Rashad ample room to experiment, and starting to pull Top Dawg Entertainment out of the long shadow of To Pimp a Butterfly.

Cilvia Demo was a feat of mixing. Rashad prefers foggy beats, hazy numbers with elements that float past each other, only occasionally making direct contact, the musical equivalent of an all-ages skate. Because his vocals can be just as sauntering, there’s a high risk of redundancy. On Cilvia Demo, this dilemma was resolved by layering entire verses (“Modest”) and subtly chopping Rashad’s voice to make it drag (“West Savannah”). The Sun’s Tirade draws from the same playbook, but the execution has considerably leveled up. The twinkling “Bday” is just as sludgy as a Cilvia track, but the drag is entirely generated by Rashad himself, his voice pure gravel. Likewise, the second half of “Stuck in the Mud” sounds exactly like its title suggests, Rashad using the bottom of his throat to trudge through a drug-induced haze. This increased vocal ability adds some serious heft to his lyrics. “How you tell the truth to a crowd of white people?” he asks on “Bday”, the gravity of the question overwhelming.

The Sun’s Tirade isn’t as consistently weighty as Cilvia, which tackled suicidal thoughts, parental abandonment, and addiction with bold vulnerability. Mirroring the album’s cover art, throughout the album Rashad mostly drifts along, floating through hookups, late nights, and binges. This freewheeling approach both adds some levity to the often murky production and makes his stronger lines hit harder, like a joyride with sharp turns. “Little boys dressed like rappers, can that role make them daddies?” he asks on “Dressed Like Rappers”. “Nowadays I barely know myself, but thank god I found this rope,” he raps on “Rope”, pivoting from an identity crisis to an existential crisis, the starkest sobriety.

Drugs and alcohol hang heavy in Rashad’s world, from the smoky production, to Rashad’s constant references to intoxication. “Pop a xanny, make your problems go away,” he chants with relief on “Stuck in the Mud”. “Steel in my liver,” he adds on “Free Lunch”. But there’s neither exuberance nor self-loathing in these lines. Despite recently revealing that drugs almost got him booted from his label, in his music he withholds judgment, acknowledging his vices but never referring to them as such.

Label co-president and producer Dave Free serves as a conscience of sorts, dialing in on “Wat’s Wrong” and “Dressed Like Rappers” to bring Rashad back to Earth. These interludes, which are faintly comical, are odd reminders of how fully formed Rashad’s aesthetic has become. Even as Rashad stretches himself on songs like “Don’t Matter” and “A lot”, the album’s only sonic outliers (the latter produced by trap maven Mike WiLL), it’s easy to forget that this is both his debut album and a TDE album. And that’s a good thing. The tension on this album resides in the artist, not the circumstances.

At every turn The Sun’s Tirade proves itself to be neither an omnidirectional diatribe on the status of black America nor a mythmaking classic. It’s not as ambitious as it could have been, but it works due to its sheer expressiveness, one man going through the motions and chronicling every movement, a tirade in the purest sense. Perhaps TDE really is an independent label.

Essential Tracks: “Stuck in the Mud”, “Free Lunch”, and “Wat’s Wrong”