2016 was, as I recall, a good year. I had a brand new pair of glasses, Mac Miller was in love, and Isaiah Rashad was getting clean. The Sun’s Tirade, to this day my favorite album, promised new beginnings for the Chattanooga rapper. There would be “No more projects every two years” from Rashad, a promise he technically kept, given that The House is Burning took all of four years and ten months to release.
But, as we know, the interim period between Sun’s Tirade and THIB has been nothing if not tumultuous. Mac Miller, alongside what felt like every other exciting young musician, passed away. Rashad even came close to joining them, slipping into financial destitution as well as rehab, and I shattered those glasses last week at my first concert in a year and a half, a hiatus prompted by this spooky thing called Covid-19.
And despite the fact that I rarely see any smoke when I step outside, it certainly feels like everything, everywhere has been set ablaze. So enters Isaiah Rashad and his third album.
“Whatever gon’ keep my kids safe, my kids full, I’m with it”
With a hazy introductory track, named for Superman’s killer, Zay ushers his listeners into a 16-track rumination on the apocalypse. When the world is ending, and things are falling apart, what is he to do? The answer, it seems, is simple: take stock of the essentials, be conscious of your roots, and if nothing else, always move forward. To that end, this album is actively Southern, an homage to Rashad’s adolescence and his family. Filled to the brim with samples, references and interpolations of southern legends such as Three 6 Mafia, Pimp C and Project Pat, Rashad musically turns away from his Top Dawg, West Coast contemporaries and embraces his southern foundations.
The first standout track on the record to make use of such a sample is ‘RIP Young’, taken from Project Pat’s ‘Cheese and Dope’. In the song (which almost didn’t make the album) Rashad is at once unassuming and full of bravado, a line he walks time and time again with ease. His nonchalant rasp puts us in a car alongside him, as his friend passes him a cup and dutch. ‘RIP Young’ is a prime example of what makes an Isaiah Rashad song so unique. Zay talks all sorts of shit on the song, his chest out, but he never raises his voice. I don’t know of any other rapper that could say “Tell them bitches I’m a Top Dawg, get shot” so calmly.
“Came out f*ckin on your cousin”
In the months leading up to THIB, Rashad released four singles, including the Lil Uzi Vert collaboration ‘From the Garden’. The singles, well received by fans and positively reviewed by critics, were by Zay’s own admission, “the worst songs on the album.” I personally take issue with that statement, given that I think ‘Headshots (4r Da Locals)’ should be the national anthem, but I can see where he’s coming from. To me, the moments in Isaiah Rashad’s music that stand out the most are the ones in which he is the most introspective. The songs defined by frank discussions of Rashad’s mental health journey are why I always find myself coming back to his albums. Using the singles as somewhat of a lure, Rashad pulled listeners into the album with infectious tracks like ‘Lay Wit Ya’, before pulling the rug out from underneath his audience.
“I hope it all makes sense”
Far and away the album’s highlight, ‘HB2U’ is a master class in blunt, earnest, fearsomely emotional songwriting. As far from pretentious as one can get, Rashad lays bare his soul. Lines like “Ain’t nothing stopping me but parking fees” reminds us why the only obstacle that stands between any given person and relating to Isaiah’s music is the mere act of listening to it. At roughly the three minute mark, from nowhere, the song transitions into a somehow even more impactful second half. Here, we’re presented with what is genuinely some of the most beautiful music Rashad has ever released. Almost mantra-esque, “You are now a human being” crops up throughout the second half, crooning over an immaculately sloppy drum break and layers of instrumentation courtesy of producers Crooklin and Pete (Scum) Nebula.
At once heartbreaking and cautiously optimistic, ‘HB2U’ is everything that makes Isaiah Rashad such an incredible artist, from musical prowess to lyricism, this track is brilliant all-around. In a similar vein, ‘THIB’ and ‘Don’t Shoot’ are also incredible examples of Rashad’s more subtle and emotional abilities as a rapper.
The House is Burning, I am relieved to say after a long wait, is extremely good. TDE’s resident comic-book nerd gave us his second consecutive comeback record, and this time, it seems his return from the dead just might stick. He ponders death, cracks jokes alongside Kal Banx, puts together an incredible roster of features and production credits, and above all else, seems to find emotional refuge after five long years without it. Rashad’s third album is as triumphant as it is reflective, and at the end of each listen, I can’t help but feel proud of the man. Less an album and more a how-to guide on surviving a crisis, Isaiah Rashad is now three for three.
The House is Burning Rating: GOLD
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By: August Toevs