By the time Isaiah Rashad took the stage for his second show of the day at Harlows in Sacramento on Sunday, he had already scurried his way around the club and made several trips to the bar in a panicked search for his missing cell phone. Eagle-eyed fans may have seen him, but none approached as most seemed to not even notice Zay, who was cloaked in a hoodie and surrounded by his DJ, photographer and friends. He was inconspicuous, but it was clear he was eager and energized by the vibrant mood of the night and the fact that he was headlining his first nationwide tour.
“I think I’m just older man, I’m 25, it ain’t like it used to be,” Isaiah told me between sets, of his new positive perspective on life in general and how it’s seeped into his music. After a bleak outlook which he’s referred to as “teen angst” on his lauded debut album, Cilvia Demo, his equally-hailed followup The Sun’s Tirade feels more glass-half full and optimistic, and that new perspective showed on his face throughout his two sold-out Lil Sunny Tour shows on Sunday night.
“Fatherhood has definitely affected that, I guess finally having responsibility.”
By the time he touched he stage just before 9 PM, the bar near the outskirts of downtown Sacramento was nearly full for the second time in just a few hours, and a couple hundred people watched Isiah rip through his short but immaculate catalog.
The most impressive thing about Isaiah’s rapping doubles as the most impressive thing about his live performance — at any moment he can take a melancholy production and barrel through it as rambunctious and reckless as a determined running back rambling his way through a hole in between the tackles. The way he bounces and rattles off the beat is no different than a huge back like David Johnson ricocheting off of linebackers on his way to a long run.
That type of duality takes strength, but also takes the dexterity and nimbleness to be able to tip-toe through the small crevice amongst the bodies on the field. That’s the balancing act Isaiah executed so delicately while on stage, muscling his way through his energetic tracks while also gliding through the tranquil ones with the same precision and tenacity.
For an hour he shifted between coolly humming through low key, serene but rumbling ballads, and boisterously rampaging through raucous bangers without skipping a beat. “I play with my voice a lot, and we rehearse this sh*t,” he said of his ability to shift between vocal tones and moods on stage at a moment’s notice. “So I know how to do what with my voice and where I’m at. I’m alright with it [laughs]. We rehearsed for like two weeks before the tour, just going over it.”
The juxtaposition made for an hour-long roller coaster ride. He set the stage for those offsetting approaches immediately, opening with the rowdy and almost unruly cut “Smile,” before transitioning into the somber Sun’s Tirade track “Brenda.” He calmly wrapped up the next song on the setlist, “Menthol,” with an acapella outro that felt like a touchdown dance after another one of those long, violent runs, and after all the energy spent and skill displayed in the minutes leading up to the brief reprieve it felt deserved.
Really, it was just a trick to lull the crowd into a calm before making the room rattle with a thumping performance of “Park,” and both performances of the night — much like both of his albums — followed a similar yo-yoing formula, bouncing the crowd through the emotions of the contrasting moods. After jumping in unison with the crowd for a dynamic rendition of “Tity and Dollar,” he might as well have pulled up a chair and lit a cigarette for the soothing “Silkk Da Shocka” before mixing the opposing techniques on the spirited chorus and subdued verses on “Heavenly Father.”
“Me and (DJ) Chris Calor pick the setlist and we ask the homies too,” Isaiah said of the sequence of tracks during his shows. “Whatever we think sounds good and flows.” And what they chose for the Lil’ Sunny Tour is a heavy dose of The Sun’s Tirade, which is to be expected given it’s his most recent release, but this aesthetic was also chosen for a different reason. “I performed the old stuff for like four years, I performed Cilvia Demo for like three years,” said of his older material. “So, now I perform the ones I know they want to hear off of it. Especially if they haven’t seen me before. Some of them they might not have heard last time. I switch them up too.”
Between the two shows in Sacramento Isaiah did do some switching of the setlist, on the fly. When a fan requested “Ronnie Drake” rather vocally, he invited her onto the stage and obliged her.
When the strict venue curfew came into play later in the night, he called another audible, he ended his second performance with “By George (Outro)” from Sun’s Tirade, skipping the “Shot You Down,” and “4r Da Squaw” 1-2 punch that ended the first show. “I end with ‘4r Da Squaw’ sometimes,” he noted between shows, unknowingly full of foresight. “It got a good flow to it and it’s cool to make them wait out for the song they been waiting for the whole time.”
On his last major tour, Schoolboy Q’s Oxymoron tour in 2014, Isaiah possessed the same room-engulfing energy, though he seemed more downtrodden than the joyful figure that pranced through the room on Sunday. Last summer before releasing The Sun’s Tirade, he admitted he fell into a period of addiction while on Q’s tour, and his affinity for liquor and Xanax nearly cost him his deal with TDE.
After being given an ultimatum by TDE president Top Dawg, he cleaned his act up, and now Isaiah says the whole revelation was a bit blown out of proportion. “I ain’t word that sh*t right,” he said after sucking his teeth at the notion. “It was more so, I was just doing too much. I got like two kids now and sh*t. I been chilling bro. I’m kicking it. I got my friends with me and sh*t so it’s cool.”
So yes, he had a few drinks throughout the night, including a celebratory shot on stage, but the 25-year-old Chattanooga MC seems to have things under control, and a massive support system that is helping to make sure of it. Now, instead of preparation for a show with a pint and a few xans, he’s turning to a trusted drink of choice: Water. “For preparation I just drink water,” he said simply and during each show he was true to his word, spreading the wealth by handing out water bottles to the crowd mid-set. He even hummed “You gotta hydrate to have a good show, you gotta hydrate to have a good one” into the mic as the bottles made their way through the crowd.
Previously the issues with addiction caused an extended hiatus, including a two-and-a-half year gap between albums, but with a better grip on his life this time around Isaiah doesn’t believe the wait for his third LP will be nearly as lengthy.
“Last time recording an album was like, a lot of procrastinating,” he said. “The first project was a lot of trying to make it sound how ni**as wanted it to sound, just making a whole bunch of sh*t. This one is easy, I know myself a little better. I already started making stuff (for the next album).” And in the meantime there’s hope for a long-awaited and oft-requested joint project with another TDE heavyweight: SZA. “A project with SZA can always happen,” he said of the rumors and suggestion that the duo could craft an LP together. “Me SZA got enough songs that we can do a mixtape whenever.”
More than anything, he seemed humbled by the entire experience of the night. Humbled by the two enthusiastic crowds, humbled by a reporter’s presence to ask him questions, humbled by the concept of headlining his first tour with nearly every date sold out and humbled by the success and acclaim of his new album. Still, Isaiah told Billboard last year that the success of Cilvia Demo helped him “realize how critically-acclaimed don’t mean shit” and he’s still keeping that in mind this time around.
“Still critically acclaimed,” he said while laughing and discussing the aftermath of his latest album. “It hasn’t gone beyond that yet. It’s getting there though. It’s getting to where, like, just normal people know my music, not just hip-hop heads. That’s what you look for, people that just love sh*t. Love anything.”
But that’s not to be confused with being unhappy or unappreciative of the fruits of his labor. It’s clear Isaiah just wants more, and as one of the most talented artists in the industry, he deserves as much, but that doesn’t mean he’s not enjoying what he’s earned thus far.
“I’m really grateful for everything that’s happened to me and I just love this sh*t,” he giddily said of the night, the tour and his career as a whole. “This was everything I expected so I just be chilling. It’s my first headlining tour. I love this sh*t.”
Everybody else on Sunday afternoon and evening loved it as well.
Isaiah Rashad Lil Sunny Tour Sacramento setlist 3/12
5. “Dressed Like Rappers”
6. “R.I.P. Kevin Miller”
7. “Tity And Dolla” (featuring Hugh Augustine)
8. “Silkk Da Shocka”
9. “Heavenly Father”
10. “Rope // Rosegold”
11. “Stuck In The Mud”
12. “Ronnie Drake” (With a fan, after request)
14. “A lot”
15. “Free Lunch”
16. “By George (Outro)”
(First show wrapped with “Shot You Down” and “4r da Squaw” though the second show ended with “by george (outro)” due to time constraints)