February 14 2014
With no buzz and barely any promotion, recent Top Dawg Entertainment signee Isaiah Rashad dropped his first album last month entitled the “Cilvia Demo”. Before I even started listening to it, I thought to myself, “Gee, what a strange name for a studio album. Why would someone have the word “demo” in their first official album? Isn’t that kind of under-estimating their own work in a way? Why should I pay full money for something that is labeled a ‘demo’?” But Rashad didn’t mean "demo" the way you would think. One definition for the word is “a demonstration---especially of a new product.” As I looked at the cover art with alternate titles crossed off around it with things like “Preachers Son, Fake Trill, Strictly 4, Khaki EP, & Pieces of a Kid”, etched around, I realized something. This was the most honest way Rashad knew how to communicate his current state of being. This is a guy who is new to just about everything in music. This album is a journey about how he had found his own way as a person as well as an artist, embracing both his talent and imperfections.
Before beginning, it’s important to make one thing clear. Isaiah Rashad is no Kendrick Lamar. He never will be. When Rashad got signed in early 2013, comparisons were being made. Many were referencing him as just a sloppier version of Kendrick. Through Lamar’s Section.80 LP, he brought wisdom and great understanding about his own generation and insights that few of his peers could ever hope to pick up on. With that being said, Isaiah Rashad is a train wreck (and that is not necessarily a negative thing). He lacks very few insights and says things as he perceives them, coming from a very empirical standpoint. There is something very comforting about this though, as he comes across as very human. This is portrayed right off the bat in his first song “Hereditary”.
On the first track, his influence is clear. Rashad, originally from Chattanooga, brings that Southern “Chopped & Screwed” hip-hop style with him. He begins by proclaiming his problems, along with his father’s bad influence on his life (or a lack of any influence at all by him). On the next couple songs, there is quite a bit more of this. The young Southern rapper seems like a bitter kid writing in a diary. He is one who is upset with the environment he was brought up in and one who has let his vices (sex addiction, alcohol, and drugs) override him. This content may seem a little bit abrasive to many listeners, but the production aspect of the album is quite the opposite though.
His lyricism packs a heavy punch, but the production is lounge-like and downtempo (reminiscent of groups like Bonobo, Zero 7, Nightmares On Wax, & Portishead). This stark contrast reinforces the album design (it looks like a diary or journal). His music on the project is like him decompressing afterhours trying to figure how he can attain a peace of mind (which is why his heavier content and chilled-out instrumentals work so well together).
A peace of mind eventually finds him on song #6 entitled “West Savannah” (featuring fellow TDE label mate SZA). This appears to be the turning point for him as this is the first track where he doesn’t mention himself binging on alcohol or indulging himself in other destructive habits. The lyrics go as such: “Now can we fall in love while Southernplayalistic is banging through the night… At least, we fell in love with something greater than debating suicide.” This portrays the first time Rashad fell in love with music as an art. He indicates that this was a place where he could escape from the things going on around him and dedicate himself to something “greater”. One thing to note about the young TDE rapper is that he may be on his journey to self-discovery, but he is very well developed in a definitive sound he has found through his newfound passion within music.
Scattered throughout, there are several musical influences besides the obvious 90’s Southern “Chopped & Screwed” style. Reggae is also a predominant aspect of the way Isaiah projects himself vocally. This is seen on tracks like “Heavenly Father”, where he gives a Reggae-like flair to his voice. Instrumentally, we can see this influence on “Webbie Flow” where the production has ska-like strokes on it. His vocalist feature selections are also excellent and uncanny to the genre of hip-hop. Chicago rising star Jean Deux is the featured vocalist on several tracks. On “Menthol” she is reminiscent of Baria Quereshi from the English pop band The XX. Her vocals go excellent with Rashad’s raw emotive delivery also coupled with the downtempo productions on the album.
When we get to the song “Tranquility”, there is something a little different about it. It has a piano loop that sounds like it has been sampled off of an early 1900’s piano (think Scott Joplin). It’s very raw and rough sounding giving it a very nostalgic feel as he seems to be realizing at a songwriting level of who he is and what he wants to become. The project proceeds with the aforementioned “Heavenly Father” piece ,(which is probably the most radio-friendly song on the album) showing Rashad crying out to God, trying to make sense of his past once again but also trying to attain guidance on what he needs to do for his future. The next couple tracks aren’t as memorable (as the content of them seems a little misguided from the overall story arc of the album) but the debut piece ends in a bang with the 7 minute song “Shot You Down” (featuring Jay Rock & Schoolboy Q). This song could symbolize Rashad’s purpose becoming clear as he proclaims the words “I came, I saw, I conquered, I shot you down.” (referring to his aspiring dominance in the hip-hop genre). It also seems to be representative of Isaiah becoming one of the “bunch” at Top Dawg as Rock and Q being featured on the song was the first time any major musicians were part of the album.
Cilvia (Demo) is an album of self-discovery, pushing through trials, overcoming vice, and trying to make the best out of a situation one has been placed in. Rashad has a long way to go before even being close to being considered one of hip-hop’s elite, but this is an artist that shows great promise in the future. His bars and technicality in songwriting needs quite a bit of work, but his emotion and annunciation is immediately felt on first listen. As mentioned before, his hooks do have a place as he can successfully pull off that Reggae-vibe that he was surely going for. Everything about Isaiah is far from perfect, but isn’t that what makes us all human? That can be beautiful in itself.