On the 28th January 2014, a young rapper from Chattanooga, Tennessee by the name of Isaiah Rashad released his debut album titled Cilvia Demo. Signed to the now legendary Top Dawg Entertainment, there was intrigue and anticipation from this upcoming artist, who was the first rapper signed to the label (2013) outside the big 4 – Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and ScHoolboy Q. With the release of the single and music video to “I Shot You Down” back in 2013, Isaiah Rashad’s sound was characterized by ethereal, soulful production and a strong, presence on the mic, bringing heavy personal and revealing lyricism. This raw, relatable energy was reflected beautifully on his 14 track debut and has stood the test of time, with its modern, soulful take on that Soulquarians-influenced boom-bap sound prominent throughout the late 90s and early 2000s.
The album came out during a pivotal time in my life. I was into my second semester at university, a few months away from my 19th birthday. Struggling with loneliness and difficulties adapting to life away from home, this album gave me warmth and an odd sense of identity. I felt like I resonated with Isaiah Rashad’s personal lyricism on tackling depression, staying close to family, being grounded and relationships too. All of this was dealt with on one of my favourite soundscapes at the time – a sweet, melodic and soulful backdrop with incredible guitar leads, basslines and drums that give it both a head-nod groove and meditative, seducing sound. Listening to it now, I feel an overwhelming nostalgia towards my university days, and despite the sadness and loneliness I felt at the time, the good memories I had defined my experience as a young adult.
“West Savannah” featuring the beautiful and talented SZA is still among my favourite tracks on the album, and it contains one of the most poignant lines on the whole project. “At least, we fell in love with something greater than debating suicide” Isaiah and SZA both sing on this track. The ethereal quality of the beat, which samples Iman Omari’s stunning “Energy” really hits home for me. But it’s the gentle yet haunting message of that lyric in particular that really makes me tear up whenever I hear it. It’s so beautiful and profound, and it’s not the only moment on the album that moves me like that. On “Tranquility,” he deals with his deep sadness, not being content with his life and those close to him. He raps “I’m willing to pray, I’m feeling the angels / Is liquor the savior? This moment will contain us / And ride to the far side, I’m looking for peace / Just spread the cigar wide, a moment of ease / Hard benches for my brothers that be roaming the streets / We don’t always be the leaders that they want us to be.” Being black in America isn’t easy, and I can imagine the struggle Isaiah goes through trying to express his emotions and channel his feelings through poetry without being judged or met with raised eyebrows. Being vulnerable and black must be difficult in an environment where you’re expected to act or conform in a certain way. This could, as in Isaiah Rashad’s case, result in dark thoughts and tremendous amounts of sadness and hopelessness, with there being a fear of falling into the trap of drinking and/or smoking excessively. This carries other dangers, but Isaiah is crystal clear with his fears and tackles them beautifully in his music. As far as my other personal favourites, “Menthol” with Jean Deaux stands out to me for it’s hard-hitting beat, infectious groove and the dreamy vocals from both artists. “Soliloquy” changes to a more menacing energy, with a rumbling bassline that reverberates throughout. A short but punchy statement. “Banana” sees his confidence turn to anger and desperation, as he flows effortlessly over the theatrical beat, rapping about his heavy use of drugs to combat his own fears. “Shot You Down” features Jay Rock and ScHoolboy Q in an extended 7-minute cut. Isaiah Rashad brings a truly heartfelt and revealing verse. His opening bars are an example of this: “I take a drag at the square, I feel anxious, spit dangerous / As the verbal appears, it’s reflectin’ my perspective / Beer goggle and fear, role model so hollow / Shadow adolescence and a gaggle of them bitches / Road to the rich is still paved with the ditches.” The others bring stellar verses too, but it’s Isaiah’s that to me holds more weight, which tells us a lot about his ability to convey true passion and emotion to his music, the main reason he is so relatable as an artist.
Isaiah Rashad’s raw and unfiltered honesty throughout the 14 tracks on his debut album make him one of my favourite artists. The fact that he has released only two albums (along with 2016’s The Sun’s Tirade) and people are begging him to release more music just comes to show how relevant he still is to the genre, and how personal his music is to his fans. Even though it would be great to hear more music from the talented poet, being able to immerse myself in his two already existing projects is enough for me. They have tremendous replay value, and I’ll continue to cherish them for a long time. Cilvia Demo has already stood the test of time, and Isaiah Rashad has printed his name in the hip-hop history books with this incredible album.