By Nick Sligh
Welcome to “New Music with Nick.” In this column, I will be reviewing some of the most notable new album releases across various genres, focusing on hip-hop, R&B and pop music. Join me in exploring the ever-shifting landscape of the streaming era.
Isaiah Rashad: “The House Is Burning” (July 30, 2021)
Isaiah Rashad has never had the mainstream appeal of some of his contemporaries in hip-hop, despite his talent and uniqueness. Even without the “superstar” status, he has established an impressive cult following that very few other rappers have achieved. After a nearly five year hiatus since his last studio album, “The Sun’s Tirade,” “The House Is Burning” arrived as one of the most highly anticipated hip-hop albums of the year when it dropped in July. Chattanooga’s beloved Rashad is finally back, his album being Top Dawg Entertainment’s first label release of 2021.
Because Isaiah Rashad has been so open about his struggles with mental health, depression and substance abuse, it’s beautiful to see him back, happy making music and rekindling his creative process. From watching interviews and keeping up with the artist’s social media, it’s clear that the album’s process was very therapeutic, representing a milestone for Rashad’s growth as a person.
“The House Is Burning” contains so much music that is solid and smooth. It’s an album that could be played as background music in nearly any circumstance, and is marked by Rashad’s musical ease. With a natural ability to make consistently melodic and meaningful records, he makes it look easy.
A southern influence is always apparent in Zay’s music, but it shines strongly through the deliveries and production choices in this album. A prime example is “Lay Wit Ya”: Isaiah’s chorus and verse are delivered with a drawl and content that can only be associated with southern rap to a listener’s ear. The production and the feature choice, emerging Memphis rapper Duke Deuce, further complement the commitment to this targeted sound. Drawing influences from the opposite side of his home state, Zay uses “Lay Wit Ya” to highlight an intriguing dive into Memphis trap music.
In general, the feature list had some impressive artists, and there were definitely a handful of times where the guests stole the spotlight of the song, for better or worse.
Rashad’s performance on “From The Garden” was strong, but it was just the perfect beat for Lil Uzi Vert’s energy and bouncy flow, leaving Uzi’s more memorable. “Lay Wit Ya” saw another instance where Zay used a production style that was slightly out of his range. Duke Deuce was much more comfortable on the beat, carrying the track through his prolific prowess over the Memphis sound and with perfect energy. “Claymore” saw Zay open with smooth flows and his relaxing nature, but Smino came in and took centerstage with a refreshing, relentless and enjoyable verse. Jay Rock did much of the same on “True Story,” following a laid-back introductory minute and a half with an electric and hilarious verse that was one of the better parts of the album.
The range of quality within the tracklist is pretty extensive. A couple of songs really stand out as some of my favorites of this year, but a few shocked me in even making the final cut. Despite there being a few songs on both extremes, the majority of the tracks fall into the category of being “pretty good” songs that don’t quite have any mind-blowing aspects.
“HB2U” is one of the best songs of the entire year so far in hip-hop. The wonderful soul sample is met by Zay’s most personal and heartfelt performance across the entire project. It’s Rashad in his comfort zone, executing at his absolute highest level with all of the elements of the track meshing in a heartfelt unison. The lead single for the album, “Headshots (4r Da Locals)” is also one of the better songs to come out this year, with Zay’s undeniable effortless southern swagger and groove on peak display. “RIP Young” matches as an additional great track that outpours melodic soul and light-hearted fun.
On the other side, “Wat U Sed” is one of the lower quality tracks that I’ve heard Rashad ever put out. To clarify, he has one of the most consistent discographies I’ve heard in modern hip-hop, so this isn’t saying that much, but it’s still disappointing. “9-3 Freestyle” also fits into this let-down category, despite being fairly funny and with some good bounce. Tracks like these made the artistry feel less focused than his past works.
“Cilvia Demo” remains the magnum opus of Zay’s discography, followed by “The Sun’s Tirade,” with his most recent release coming in at a close third. This is no knock at all to the newest effort, but rather a major appreciation for the impressive earlier full-length studio releases from the Tennessee artist. Ultimately, the quality of the music across the record is just a notch below the past, but it is still at a level higher than many artists could get to even at their best.
Although Rashad developed an impassioned fanbase largely due to his honest portrayals of mental health and substance abuse, he is not obligated to address these topics relentlessly. “The House Is Burning” doesn’t naturally lose points because it lacks the astounding humility and lyrical potency of earlier works like “Heavenly Father” or “Hereditary” from “Cilvia Demo.” Many people understate and misunderstand the burden that an artist can feel from that responsibility, and I think it’s naive to consistently demand that level of openness and potency from any artist.
Isaiah continues to play such an important role for fans of his music, and with such a consistent overall quality. Top Dawg Entertainment continues their run of modern prominence with their genuine star providing his fans with another quality work, hopefully just one of many more great projects in his future.
Favorite Songs: “HB2U,” “Headshots (4r Da Locals),” “RIP Young,” “From The Garden,” “True Story”
Album Score: 78/100
Check out this Spotify playlist and like it to follow along with some of my favorite songs of 2021 as the year progresses!