This is not an essay arguing for the merits of burying one’s head into a deep and sandy hill, but it must be said that knowing thyself doesn’t pay for shit and is dirty work. In other words: Soul-searching ain’t easy. You’ve got to move for it, and even then there’s the matter of finding a pathway to salvation (assuming there is one). Looking in the mirror and not flinching at the shame and splendor reflecting back can be quite the task. But if you can manage, it might help you work through some things.
I often imagine the Chattanooga, Tennessee, rapper Isaiah Rashad in a state of near-constant introspection because there are only so many things that can explain an artist taking a five-year break at what should be the peak of their career. The short story: When Rashad signed to the California super label TDE in 2013, he was positioned—along with R&B’s reigning songstress, SZA—to be next in line to the audiences of Kendrick Lamar and the rest of Black Hippy. He was 22 and raw. And in a way that will never stop being shocking, he ended up being worthy of the hype.
Rashad dropped two albums in three years, each one an expansion upon previous work and a mark of an MC brimming with the kind of unmatched charisma that generally leads to domination in the social media age. Then, in 2016, he went on tour after his second album was released and disappeared. Insert the all-too-common lamentations of addiction and fame’s vise grip, combined with general bag-fumbling tendencies—and there you have it. That is, until Friday, when Rashad returned out of the proverbial wilderness with his third album, The House Is Burning.
The record is a display of self-reflection from an artist better and more comfortable than he’s ever been. Rashad is looser up and down each track. He’s always reveled in the space between words—how each impasse can be contorted and tapped to create a cohesive string of sounds. On hooks and bridges he’s now liable to remove all pauses in cadence outright, spraying a mishmash of syllables to form a ceaseless sentence. Zay delights in a pocket, then migrates in step with each soundscape on to another frontier. He can amble if he needs to but is fearless in pushing the limits of perception. (On the vibrating opener, “Darkseid,” he streamlines nearly every clause, pausing only to observe to his imagined listener, “If I was you, I’d be dead.”)
The rapper has a new bag of tricks. He’s mastered mimicry, chopping each word like a long-lost member of the Migos on the sirening, Lil Uzi Vert–assisted “From the Garden” or preening and fluttering like Playboi Carti throughout the clinking, bounce-inflected “Wat U Sed.” That he’s able to do so without losing sight of his strengths is a feat in its own right. He’s never been more deft with the tools of harmony and rhythm. In an age defined by the shrinking distance between R&B and rap, Rashad has a preternatural ability to bring out the best in both. He’s got one-offs and punch lines that’ll cave a hole in your chest (observe: “I just put blades on a bulletproof Range / I could cripple Liu Kang,” on the late-era UGK ode “Chad”) and melodic flourishes that are simply mesmerizing (see later, on the same track, how he inflects the words “it’s on-on” with enough energy to blow the roof off a house merely by adding a bit more zest to the second utterance). He might not be able to carry a tune like SZA or 6lack over the ethereal and organ-accented “Score”; he can stroll and croon enough to make you feel just as much, though.
Zay might be one of a kind, but what really makes him shine is that he’s so much of so many. Like many of his other works, The House Is Burning is cloaked in sonic references to the various regional exports of the South—New Orleans bounce, the works of Three 6 Mafia, and Pimp C. That the rapper manages not to drown in nostalgia, instead growing within and beyond each idol, is a perfect encapsulation of his spirit and appeal. Add a dash of Cudi’s harmonic proclivities, Kendrick’s pace, and Erykah’s taste, mix it up for a modern audience, and you might find something that sounds close to Isaiah Rashad. Nothing is exactly him, though.
And exactly him has meant a lot of different things over the years, but right now it seems to mean honesty. Where has he been? The answer lies in plain sight on the Goodie Mob–sampling “THIB”: “Soul searchin’, no purpose, purchase / Been addict, been starvin’, thirsty.” What does he want? The triumphant and crushing final track, “HB2U,” holds the key: “If you don’t ever get yourself straight, who the fuck is you gon’ help, mane?” It is no coincidence that the first track on the record is titled “Darkseid,” a nod to the omnipotent DC villain, but also a reference to the parts of oneself that bring the most shame, the things that pull us down. That’s not to say that on The House Is Burning Rashad isn’t a sucker for a party. He doesn’t hesitate to give Eisha, or Keisha, or Peaches a call at the top of “Claymore,” and he’s probably got more on deck. There is plenty of space devoted to hedonism on the record; there are hooks about bussin’ and fuckin’, using and abusing. It’s just that at the end of the day Zay knows his limits, or rather he recognizes that he has limits at all (“Still greedy, don’t tease me, servin’”). He’s seen the bottom, he’s got a grip on what he likes about himself, and, now, what he doesn’t.
It’s easy to get romantic and buy into the industry salesmanship that’d have you believe that every album is an extension of a personal evolution and not a product to be sold to the masses. Sometimes it’s equally appealing to forget that a record can be both. Isaiah Rashad was 25 at the time of his last full-length release; now he’s 30. He sounds the same in some ways and different in others, but what he really is, now more than ever, is aware. He appears to understand himself. That’s the dirty work, the stuff that won’t necessarily get you paid but might get you saved. Sometimes a life catches fire, sometimes it’s always aflame. On The House Is Burning, Zay won’t tell us where he’s going, only that he knows he’s got to get a move on.