‘The House Is Burning’ and from its Ashes, Isaiah Rashad is Reinventing he and Hip-Hop’s Future
There’s abundant courage required to redefine oneself at the peak, but with no way to go up any further without the invention of something to fly on, the only choice remaining is to promptly head — or painfully fall — back down to Earth. Over the last five years, the duality of Isaiah Rashad has seemed to be in flux, heading in both directions at once. Out of the public eye, the eternally illusive Chattanooga-born, LA-based rapper has been going through it, and subsequently — personally — as his creative projects continue to spur a large following and ensuing influence on hip-hop music and culture — been struggling to stay near the peak he summited upon his sophomore Top Dawg Entertainment project release: 2016’s The Sun’s Tirade. A relapse, financial troubles, rehab, a creative stall, and an internal reckoning may sound like an old story spun into reality by the whirlwind lifestyle that signing to one of the world’s greatest hip-hop labels entails. And vaguely, removed from the limelight and therefor at least to some extent, the rallying demand for more that his widespread, at times obsessive fandom calls for, that’s exactly what’s been happening. But in subsequence, something else has been happening, too. The House Is Burning, and Isaiah Rashad may have flown too close to the sun, but in a new-age hip-hop game that prioritizes experimentation even at the cost of reinventing an established and beloved auditory aesthetic, his wings remain intact, perched at the top of music again.
The House Is Burning bleeds of its title, metaphorically capturing and substantively recounting the struggles Isaiah Rashad has dealt with during his blistering encounter with what is now almost a decade of top-tier hip-hop fame. But it also — particularly in its sound — exalts of new beginnings, shining the once signature mellow beam of his introspective psychiatry session style of hip-hop, as something now altogether more wide-ranging, more than marginally unique even when weighed against past versions of himself. And for the most anticipated hip-hop album of the year — perhaps sharing that space with Kanye’s long-awaited collection, DONDA — the self-renaissance of Isaiah Rashad is one of the boldest, yet ultimately successful exhibitions not only in his own canon of masterpieces, but in the cloth of modern hip-hop at large.
From the album’s very onset, and its very well-thought-out rollout beginning with Headhsots (4r Da Locals) earlier this Summer, those looking for Isaiah Rashad as they once knew him felt instead an evolution of his presence, not blurry; not shadowy; but certainly newness rooted in the old. The leading single stylistically spoke to his craven fanbase, leaving Easter eggs of his past work (remember 2016 hit, 4r Da Squaw) and beaming reminiscence into the headphones of his less than patient following. The single and its accompanying set of visuals inhabiting an AA meeting brought back a flood of memories we as hip-hop fans all hold to the tune of the old Isaiah Rashad.
Now finding itself in the meat of the album, Headshots (4r Da Locals) is the track most widely inhabiting the space it was that Isaiah Rashad creatively navigated with his early work, feeling as though it could have been pulled from an old hard drive of Cilvia Demo loosies. A low-key, jazz-nuanced beat; and anthemic, addicting melody that delivers his oft-raspy register to a crystalline pulpit; a thought-provoking string of poeticism speaking on the light he finds in dark subjects like his ‘obsession with death’ or his on-again-off-again relationship with sobriety. A hit by the definition of Isaiah Rashad hits that has been defined throughout the course of hits he’s delivered since 2014, Headshots (4r Da Locals) brings its listeners back. The rest of The House Is Burning brings all of hip-hop further into the future.
Out from Headshots, the project defines a new era for Isaiah Rashad, still laced with hits, but exploring a new and even wider range with his already experimentally influential soundscape. Top to nearly bottom — excluding the project’s closer, HB2U which is an emotion-fueled, introspectively mellow composition — The House Is Burning encapsulates the urgent reactions that its title suggests. His flow exudes brevity, holding less breath in the kind of choral exaltations that make Headshots (4 da Locals) a track of reminiscence, and instead explores more of his effortless ability to fold quick-hitting punchlines in and out of one another, and bring the ruckus to a reminiscence of something else. And for that exploration of his own soundscape, Isaiah Rashad summons a lot of inspiration from home.
Chattanooga has for more than a decade, been an experimental hotbed for the South. The House (the collaborative co-op from where Rashad draws his pre-TDE roots, and towards which he pays hidden homage in the title of his new album) has been a leading creative collective coordinating a Central Tennessee renaissance. BbyMutha, Michael Da Vinci, and YGTUT (who finds himself on The House Is Burning through a signature deep-toned, hard-hitting verse on Chad) all play their own roles in a local scene quickly turning global. The same can be said for myriad artists in a nearby Nashville scene that is also exploding with youthful talent and burgeoning acclaim. But for even more inspiration from the Volunteer State, Rashad enlists Memphis crunk revivalist, Duke Deuce for a bass-ridden anthem that would make Triple Six proud. Chopped and Screwed underdubs, old Southside samples, and the absurdity that a feature like Duke Deuce brings in tow make Lay Wit Ya a new take on a classic direction for one of the South’s most well-travelled modern names. And that broad Southern soundscape, ranging from the early 00’s Tennessee resurgence to the triplet trends of modern Atlanta’s Migos, is something Rashad continues to source throughout the project. The intro of RIP Young samples Project Pat’s Cheese and Dope; From The Garden sees Rashad dive headfirst into the cadence that makes contemporary Atlanta the most influential hip-hop city of the last decade or more. And everywhere in between the two bookends of Southern influence from where he draws inspiration for a reinvented sound, Isaiah Rashad experiments wildly, encapsulating the sounds that first drew him to hip-hop and exploring where all of it can be taken.
Tethered together by the jazz-oriented, mellow keystroke, and heavy bass production that transcends from his club bangers to his introspective spells of wordsmithery, The House Is Burning is Isaiah Rashad’s third bright success in as many attempts when it comes to crafting an album that plays in perfect run-on composition from beginning to end. But, unlike his earlier work, The House Is Burning also sees Rashad abandon any sort of formulaic construct for his own sound. As popular as his slow-burning therapy session verses and melodically addicting hooks are — and though they do appear here in this album — he has even more to offer. So many of the sounds are new, but at nearly all times feel reminiscent of his past, undoubtedly rooted in it, but blooming into something else. The project as a whole is a fresh one for hip-hop, but at nearly all times feels reminiscent to so many other moments in hip-hop’s storied past. And yet, from beginning to end of The House Is Burning, a listener can’t help but feel like they’re instead listening to the musical future. A well-balanced and wide-ranging rapper dissects his own vulnerabilities and reconstructs a path forward for himself — for hip-hop — from the ashes of personal and collective strife, boasting an identity that can, in one fell swoop through a reinvention of the Southern tradition, act as a soundtrack for a barrier-breaking meditation session or for house-burning block party.