Isaiah Rashad Paints A Portrait Of A Man On Fire With ‘The House Is Burning’

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There’s a webcomic, one of those relatable, simply-drawn four-panel stories, in which a little cartoon dog sits at a table sipping from a mug of tea. The house he’s in is on fire, and in the second panel, he finally reacts to his situation: “This is fine,” he insists, although things around him are most certainly not in any way “fine.” The comic, a 2013 strip of the gag-a-day comic Gunshow has since been stripped down to these first two panels and re-shared into cultural ubiquity, a meme detached in many ways from its original context to describe most of our everyday existence in the era of Trump and COVID.

Isaiah Rashad’s new album, The House Is Burning, is very much the audio equivalent of this comic, with Isaiah playing the role of Question Hound, and his lyrics reflecting both of the juxtaposed states in play in the comic. On one hand, there is a creeping, nauseous sense of paranoia and dread. On the other, there is the Chattanooga rapper’s bemused insistence that everything is fine, the denial of the disaster in progress that threatens his very existence. The appeal of The House Is Burning is, yes, in its relatability, the tension between that sense of helplessness in the face of certain doom and our own (pardon) dogged need to press forward as though this is all normal, even though we know it’s not.

In the five years since we last heard from Rashad on the fan-favorite The Sun’s Tirade, the Tennesseean native has lived through his own version of this hell, in part of his own making. In the lead-up to his latest release, he’s been candid about the fires that burned around him; his twin battles with anxiety and addiction led him to nearly imploding his own career, spending nearly all his rap money, and returning home to Chattanooga, where family and friends couldn’t believe that Rashad, a Top Dawg Entertainment employee, was running on fumes and drinking himself to death as a result.

Tracks throughout the album augur this sense of weary, doomed resignation. “Some n****s gon’ die in the cardboard, some n****s gon’ die in the feds,” he observes on the hook to album opener “Darkseid.” On single “Headshots (4r Da Locals),” amidst seemingly celebratory fare about cars with bass and his indefatigable sex appeal, Rashad sneaks in the cutting line “I got a crib bigger than Budapest / And the shots ain’t bringin’ my soldier back,” making the double entendre and stiletto slice of the grim reflection slide by behind the cool glamor of his stolid facade.

However, these gloomy ruminations share equal time and space with party tracks like “Wat U Sed” with TikTok star Doechii and Kal Banks and “From The Garden” with Lil Uzi Vert, where Rashad indulges in the excesses and flexes expected of rap stars of his stature. On “Lay Wit Ya,” the first song he promoted as a single from the album, he calls himself “a cold piece of work” and smears his sweaty come-ons with a fine layer of affected disaffection — some might call this pimping — as he works hard to appear like none of this is work. In reality, all the water rolling off his back may not look like it affects him, but underneath, he’s treading for dear life — a lot like the rest of us.

So there is relief and release in the pure R&B songs that smatter the tracklisting. “Claymore” with Smino finds Rashad finding solace in the temporary company of a string of women — and even that can’t keep him from heeding the siren call of his addictions. He gets even more vulnerable on “Score” with 6lack and SZA as he details his “war scars and more sh*t” for a potential paramour, warning her before she gets too close how likely he is to run. As is usual in Rashad’s discography, the album is sprinkled with references to hip-hop classics and figures like Chad Butler (aka Pimp C) of UGK, for whom a track is named, and callbacks to Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy” on “THIB,” reinforcing that relatability factor that has so endeared him to fans.

What results is a portrait of a man on fire, struggling to find inspiration and hope in dire circumstances and coming out on the other side by the sheer will it takes to stop pretending everything is fine. In that comic I mentioned earlier, the part that often gets cut in its ongoing meme-ification is the final two panels, in which Question Hound eventually just melts away from the heat and his own refusal to take action. That’s the key difference here; recognizing that he needed help, Isaiah sought and received it with the support of his TDE cohorts and leadership. The real takeaway from the album isn’t even really on it: The house is burning, but the choice to burn with it is entirely up to you.

The House Is Burning is out now on TDE/Warner Records. Get it here.

Isaiah Rashad is a Warner Music artist. .