Suspend the fact that Chattanooga, Tennessee’s Isaiah Rashad is a member of Top Dawg Entertainment for a moment. Leave it to the side, because it’ll be useful in a second.
The 22-year-old rapper recently released his debut Cilvia Demo EP – named after the ramshackle car he drove growing up – and it’s definitely a debut: rough around the edges, but unique and engaging, a wasabi burst of individuality. Taken in a vacuum, it’d stick out.
But Rashad belongs to TDE, the same label that houses Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock, who all have crafted individual careers that somehow fit into the greater image of the crew at large. Rashad’s an unique addition in that not only is he the first MC to not hail from South Central, Los Angeles, but he has inflections of each member without sounding like it’s part of the bigger puzzle, whether intentional or not.
That’s good and bad. Cilvia shows that, hey, Rashad’s not the Kendrick, Jr. that many pinned him to be, and bad because he’ll inevitably get compared to whatever the other four crank out in a given calendar year. Both are the sort of catch-alls Rashad will unfairly receive, but that’s not how reviews (and certainly not this one!) should proceed. Because this is what it is.
Rashad was the subject of an interesting MySpace video interview last year where he described how his hometown factored into the project’s picture: “The mountains in Chattanooga, man, it’s all bright and shit, but it’s the dark spots, the darkness in it that makes the lightness and the blue so beautiful.”
Cilvia strikes a balance between all of that: never out-and-out loud, the 14 tracks mine a minimalist production palette that ranges from somber to serene, while Rashad adds touches of imagery from his Smoky Mountains town. The EP’s beginning stretch of “Hereditary,” “Webbie Flow” and “Cilvia Demo” runs this gamut, harkening to Southern influences both overt (like naming a song after Webbie) and subtle (all three remind listeners of slow-braised beats that would appear on a mixtape by someone like DJ Burn One).*
There are plenty of tropes here – see:“Baby, can you suck on my dick I know it’s big enough” – but Rashad drapes himself in self-awareness. After excoriating competitors on the boom-bap “Soliloquy,” Rashad expresses penance on the corresponding “Tranquility,” “our education, they tend to say we killers/But I’d rather give this living a chance, I’m getting patience,” which not only alludes to a traffic stop Rashad mentions in that MySpace video that changed his outlook on life but also centrally positions Rashad’s coming-of-age internal monologue throughout the work.
But, again, it’s rough. Rashad never really deviates from two styles, either singing hooks over riding music like “West Savannah” or keeping a heavy-footed pace when rapping. Which is fine, but on an album that lacks any sort of key guests outside the closer of the Jay Rock- and ScHoolboy Q-assisted “Shot You Down,” Rashad can become lost within his own music. The production saves him, but Rashad’s platitudes about being flawed and lost can only take him so far without some sort of streamlining of his narrative.
Back to TDE. If there’s one thing Rashad can learn as his career progresses with the label, it’s how to channel his unique persona into something concrete and identifiable. Kendrick’s a master storyteller, Q crafts bangers, Ab-Soul is a philosopher and Jay Rock kicks hard-hitting bars with taciturn honesty. Cilvia gives glimpses as to where Rashad’s headed, but he’s not quite there yet.
He’s hit on something, though. And perhaps with time and associating himself with the most technically talented crop of rappers around he’ll find the continuity his flaws deserve.
* — And don’t forget the frequent allusions to Master P embedded within the record, as important an influence to this generation’s Southern emcees as any. Or the track he dedicates to Houston O.G. Brad Jordan, otherwise known as Scarface.