Isaiah Rashad went up in the all-too-familiar flames of drugs, alcohol and reckless spending after the release of The Sun’s Tirade in 2016. He was a star on the rise, joining SZA in the new wave of TDE artists coming up, then everything was burning down around him. In an intimate interview with FADER ahead of the album rollout for The House Is Burning, he described the events post-touring as “the quickest fall from grace I could ever imagine.”
During the five years between the two albums, Rashad self-sabotaged, landed back at his mom’s house in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in rehab in Orange County and found refuge in the world of comic books. He said he’s now committed to recovery and has struck a balance between faith and cynicism.
He told FADER: “God alone is not going to save you. The world’s on fire. The water is polluted, there’s so much CO2 pouring into the ozone … when your house is on fire, are you going to go into that bitch to get the personal possessions, or are you just going to trust in yourself and in God that you’re going to be able to bounce back?” Rashad seems unconcerned with landing on a specific interpretation of this house on fire: it’s alcoholism, it’s the environment, it’s what you need it to be.
Rashad’s music has always circled around darkness — addiction, death, depression — with characteristic honesty, but despite this being the first album he’s made sober, THIB is not sobering. It’s got depth and a throughline of that darkness, but it’s fun. What could’ve been a bleak fulfilment of the harmful stereotype that sobriety is boring or unhappy is instead a revelation in what happens when you choose to care for yourself.
The first song on the album begins with a tape being inserted into a tape player, a fitting introduction to the nostalgia and warmth that permeates the record. It’s been a long time coming, and the record feels timeless, due to the classic Southern rap, R&B and soul infusing the samples and textures. And while a rapper could easily seem out-of-touch after a half-decade hiatus, Rashad has done his homework; THIB is derivative of nothing, informed by everything that defines the genre in 2021.
He says in “Darkseid,” “I just came back, see, I done been dead for real.” He showcases that homework-inspired range shortly on the second track, “From the Garden,” sounding like the modern megastars in rap dominating the genre from Atlanta and keeping up easily with Lil Uzi Vert. “RIP Young” and “Lay Wit Ya” follow, both catchy and confident. The latter, featuring fellow Tennessee rapper Duke Deuce, has a chorus of Rashad’s growls, ending each line with sustained, gravely notes.
Then “Claymore” hits and introduces a new sound that may suit the feature, Smino, more than Zay. Rashad spoke to GQ about how he “put a lot of people whose music I like on specific songs that were more catered to them than to me. I think that’s somewhat like being a director … Because at the end of the day, I’m more of a producer and director than anything else, I just happen to write the scripts too.”
“Headshots (4r Da Locals)” is the second in his “4r Da” series, started with “4r Da Squaw” on The Sun’s Tirade. That first “4r Da” sounds weighed down, like the slower swung lyrics themselves are drunk — and Rashad very well could’ve been, since he was still drinking during the creation of The Sun’s Tirade. “Headshots” has much more momentum and energy but is still heavy: the visuals have Rashad falling into chasms, in an “Agony Anonymous” meeting and show shots of whiskey and literal gunshots. The first verse opens with, “Who want a shot, wanna die?” which could be talking about a shot of liquor, a gunshot, a chance.
Although “9-3 Freestyle” is the only song termed a “freestyle” on the project, Rashad told Vulture: “Sixty percent of it is just loose ideas. Off top of the head, don’t question them. Just do it and build upon them type shit. ‘Score’ is a freestyle, ‘Claymore’ is a freestyle, ‘Hey Mista’ is a freestyle, the intro is a freestyle, the ‘9-3 Freestyle’ is a freestyle, ‘True Story’ is a freestyle. I think just about everything is. ‘HB2U,’ ‘From the Garden’ is technically a freestyle. Most of it is freestyle, I can’t even think of which ones weren’t.” He’s credited Kenny Beats — who is one of the producers on THIB — with helping him learn to freestyle and get out of his head.
It wouldn’t have felt like a complete Isaiah Rashad album without a SZA feature; she joins him, along with 6lack, on the standout R&B track “Score,” singing together, “You know I wanna ride-die with you.”
“HB2U” starts with a child asking, “Is there a Heaven?” (Rashad says, “Yes”), then, “How do you know that?” answered with, “You don’t.” That mix of faith and uncertainty, belief and doubt, permeates all of THIB. Rashad knows recovery is not linear; there’s no easy solution he can provide to the darkness we all have in us. But there’s optimism in that, too: We all have the potential to grow into ourselves, and to come up through the ashes of what was.
Photo courtesy of Top Dawg Entertainment