If Isaiah Rashad’s 2014 EP Cilvia Demo was notable for anything, it was the rapper’s unfiltered honesty. Lacking the technical brilliance of Top Dawg labelmate Kendrick Lamar or the pop appeal of Top Dawg-signed Schoolboy Q, Rashad offered listeners a hazy vision of hip hop, aided by stellar production and lyrics that candidly dealt with depression, childhood, and drug abuse. This sincerity helps define Rashad’s uneven, imperfect, and highly compelling debut album The Sun’s Tirade.
Though Rashad is certainly a skilled rapper, his previous work often sounded like an attempt to catch up with his nimbler labelmates rather than carve out a voice of his own. On The Sun’s Tirade, Rashad emphasizes delivery over technicality, opting for spacious rhymes that inhabit instrumentals rather than sit on top of them. Like Kendrick, Rashad’s voice is versatile. He alternates between a mumbled Southern drawl and a goofy, melodic flow. Though he enlists guests for the more complex hooks, Rashad is able to convincingly carry a tune as he does on “Rope” and “Silkk da Shocka.”
Rashad is as capable of poignant poetry as he is of trite misogyny and cliché. His lyrics, in fact, provide The Sun’s Tirade with its most powerful moments as well as comprise its greatest missteps. The hook of “4 da Squaw” has the rapper comparing his own problems with those of his son, quietly telling him “you ain’t nothin’ but a baby, your fear is growin’ up.” Rashad incorporates an imitation of his son’s gibberish in the same chorus. It’s touching, clever, and a brilliant showcase of the rapper’s melancholic drawl. There are equally moving moments on the record, like on “Silkk da Shocka,” where Rashad tells a lover: “I see the world from your eyes/You pulled the thorn from my side.”
Rashad’s lyrics draw from the turbulent period in his life since the release of Cilvia Demo. Over the past two years, the Top Dawg rapper has battled depression, developed an addiction to alcohol and Xanax, had a second child, and tempted his label to drop him. Rashad’s willingness to talk so openly about these topics, particularly mental illness, is an admirable quality in a genre that still prizes masculinity and bravado over vulnerability. With that being said, Rashad often derails his own lyrics with empty misogyny, like on the hook to “Tity and Dolla” and all over the underwhelming tracks “Park” and “A lot.”
Rashad’s occasionally lackluster lyrics are made up for by the Sept. 2 release’s uniformly excellent production. The instrumentals delicately balance electronics with live instrumentation, often to the point that they are indistinguishable. The beats draw from genres as disparate as boom bap, soul, and classic rock, but never feel pastiche; snappy drums and grinding bass keep the music grounded in the present. Most importantly, the music is a logical extension of Rashad’s lyricism. The sluggish psychedelia of “Bday” matches the rapper’s image of stumbling drunk to a brothel; the rumbling bass of album highlight “Stuck in the Mud” sounds like the sludge Rashad finds himself in. The sole outlier is “A lot,” whose robotic, Mike WiLL Made-It beat sounds utterly out of place on an album of sentimental, intricate instrumentals. Mike WiLL is the only big-name producer on the album, and it shows; most of the other beats feel curated to craft a cohesive sound.
Featured vocalists are employed with the same choice of talent over ubiquity. The malleability of Rashad’s voice gives him great chemistry with guests, and this holds true for most of the features on The Sun’s Tirade. As he’s shown in the past, Rashad makes some of his best music with labelmate and singer SZA, who appears on the seven-minute “Stuck in the Mud.” The two disappointing features are verses from Hugh Augustine and Jay Rock on “Tity and Dolla,” thematically linked by the same weirdly off-putting chauvinism.
The only A-list feature on the album is a verse from Kendrick Lamar on the standout “Wat’s Wrong.” Lamar bombards the listener with beautifully disturbing images of riding around in his father’s haunted Mercedes with a “three-piece chicken dinner and shotgun,” or holed up in the Trump Tower, spray-painting the walls and smoking weed. Like most of Kendrick’s work, it is a dazzling balance of technicality and poeticism, sin and godliness, wrath and justice. Although the record undoubtedly belongs to Rashad, Kendrick’s fingerprints are everywhere from Rashad’s frank discussion of suicide on “Rope,” to the cartoonish vocal inflections on “Free Lunch,” to the wailing alto sax of “Brenda.” Rashad makes no attempt to conceal the fact that his album was created in a post-To Pimp a Butterfly musical landscape.
The Sun’s Tirade, however, is indicative of an even greater trend within hip hop. The year’s best rap albums (including releases from Kendrick, Anderson .Paak, Chance the Rapper, and his Chicago affiliate Noname) simultaneously demand more from the artist and more from the listener. Rappers are expected to be able to sing, or at least rap, exceptionally; beats incorporate layers of live instrumentation, expanding their scope to encompass genres like jazz and gospel. Although far from perfect, The Sun’s Tirade lands among these albums as a forward-thinking, inventive piece of music, suggesting that Rashad’s best music may still be ahead of him.