The Demonstrably Modest Isaiah Rashad

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I was gushing to Isaiah Rashad about his excellent new album, Cilvia Demo. A gauche, fanboy move I admit, but I couldn’t help myself. I went on about how there’s no filler, how it’s a “fully realized artistic statement” and so on. With all of that in mind, I wondered why he decided to call it an EP?

“Can I ask you a counter-question real quick?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said.
“What’s filler?”

Here’s the thing: He wasn’t being coy. Coming from a guy who just dropped a record this solid, Rashad doesn’t need to know the meaning of the word “filler.” “It’s a bad song,” I said. “I don’t think your record has any.” He considered my response and there was an awkward silence. For a moment I thought I’d fucked up. I worried that maybe I had offended him, or worse, planted the seed that it’s OK to record shitty songs. Either way, it didn’t phase him, he didn’t even address it. “It’s not an EP,” he said. “It’s a demonstration.”

If you’ve never heard of Isaiah Rashad, don’t make the mistake of thinking that “demonstration” is really just the long way of calling his album a demo.  The record is a bit more than that—even though he insists otherwise. In fact, this is a young man with some shenanigans up his sleeve. On his song “Modest,” he boasts about how in interviews he, “play[s] it like I no have no clue that I’m the greatest.” I’m on to his game. He’s a man with something to prove, and what he’s demonstrating is that he’s got the chops to share a label with Kendrick Lamar.

Rashad grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn. inspired by everything from the comic book stylings of Stan Lee and MF Doom to Modest Mouse. After winning a freestyle battle, he gained confidence as an MC. His mom was skeptical when he told her, at about 14, that he was going to make it as a rapper. “You think you got what it takes?” she would ask him.

Yes, he did.  In fact, he spent the better part of a decade working dead-end jobs honing his craft. Rashad’s lifestyle of recording until 4 a.m. wasn’t exactly copacetic with trying to hold down jobs at Forever 21 and Hardees.  Cashflow was a problem. “The whole struggle was just trying to have a regular job so I could … still pay for studio time to convince the niggas that I was cold enough to let me record for free—and after the first time, they usually would,” says Rashad.

Listening to his early recordings, you can hear the hunger in his voice.  On “Part III,” a highlight from his  mixtape, Rashad sounds inspired even on wily, irreverent lines like, “Lord forgive me for all my bad decisions, my pot of gold was never hidden underground, it was packed in a bowl.”

He makes shit like that rhyme.

It all paid off last spring when he inked a prestigious deal with Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE). Since the moment Rashad got signed, he’s been in the studio: In January, he dropped Cilvia Demo and he’s been working on new music ever since.

Cilvia Demo is an unsettling but fun record that you can’t wrap your head around in one sitting. It’s not irreproachable, but it’s not meant to be, either. “The best is not perfect, the rest is not worth it,” Rashad raps on “R.I.P. Kevin Miller,” and it seems to be a statement of purpose for him. The production is hot, but never sounds overcooked. His rhymes are thoughtful, but still feel spontaneous. Like all good hip-hop, it references the great rap that came before it. Whether he’s quoting Master P or referencing Souls of Mischief and Emmett Till in the same breath, his nods are done with love. This is a serious album. Yet, there are moments, like one on “Soliloquy,” where he raps, “I got four white girls, all aryan, I wonder what their daddy thinks, fuck ‘em, it’s a revolution,” where it’s clear this is also the work of a smartass. That’s no dig, either—his penchant for unblushing narratives is part of what makes him special.

This month, Rashad embarks on a three-month-long tour of the US and Europe where he’ll be supporting Schoolboy Q, who just dropped the much anticipated Oxymoron. There’s a lot for Rashad to look forward to on the road. He’ll have the opportunity to see much of the country for the first time. One of the places he’s never been is Austin, where he’s slated to play an official showcase at SXSW, but he’s most excited about the food.

Rashad says the tour will be a welcome holiday from many months in the studio. He admits to working so much that he’s been sleeping in the recording booth lately. It isn’t so bad, though: “It’s cool—it’s real air conditioned,” Rashad jokes. Still, long hours making music requires a lot of sacrifice and time away from his family (he’s recently become a father), but he’s confident it will be worth it in the end. “If I do it exactly how I want to,” says Rashad, “I’ll get the place in history that I want.”

If that sounds like Rashad’s ego might be getting the best of him, I suggest you listen to his record. I, for one, am willing to forgive him for this small lapse in modesty, so long as he keeps coming through with the goods.