The vanishing man of rap returns: after impressing with his 2016 debut album The Sun’s Tirade, Southern rapper Isaiah Rashad has finally delivered its follow-up, The House Is Burning, five years later. These intervening years have been a tumultuous time for Rashad, taking in rehab stints, almost going broke, and nearly being dropped by his label Top Dawg Entertainment several times; if this album is a victory lap, the light at the end of a long tunnel, perhaps it’s surprising that it’s not grander or louder.
Instead, The House Is Burning is a lowkey and subtle affair, but this suits the casual style of Rashad better than anything ostentatious. His sound has always valued tone and vibes above all else and this new album is better experienced as a mood piece. Mostly, the songs are like timidly unfurling waves, rolling into one another effortlessly and hazily. After the atmospheric woozy opener ‘Darkseid’, two outliers threaten to overcome the conscientious construction of the whole album though: ‘From The Garden’ feels like it’s reaching for commercial viability, including featuring Lil Uzi Vert for good measure in a grating chorus, while ‘Lay Wit Ya’ is too manic in its presentation to fit.
Individual songs are not Rashad’s forte, and so it’s a relief that these are the only two real outliers. The smooth and airy ‘Claymore’ follows with a nice guest spot from Smino. Indeed, Rashad is a gracious host, letting the likes of YGTUT in the confident ‘Chad’ and SZA in the cool R&B track ‘Score’ melt into his own spots sweetly. Rashad’s delivery emphasises the languorousness of the record. He mutters his words, sounding distracted by something in his periphery; other times he sounds dazed and withdrawn, his mind elsewhere. It’s why these seem to capture so strongly late nights and early mornings, driving nowhere in particular with friends, waking up slowly the next day.
Rashad has been unafraid to speak of his problems with addiction to xanax and alcohol in the past, but he has a curious relationship with his crutches within his music. He flirts around the subjects, hinting at them in lines but never confronting them fiercely; that just wouldn’t suit the laid-back vibe. “Who’s that creeping in my window?… Who’s that fucking with my conscience?” he says in ‘THIB’, elusively touching on the state of his mental health. After everything he’s gone through, then, it’s nice to note his confidence in ‘Chad’ when he insists, “If I wasn’t rapping baby, I would still be ridin’ Mercedes.”
Rashad turned 30 in May; The House Is Burning has just earned him his first Billboard 200 Top 10 spot. Older and wiser, the subtle contemplation of this album feels like it encapsulates where he’s been in his life recently. The time for a statement-making record – not that he needs one – will come when Rashad is ready. For the unfazed and relatable Rashad, everything is done at his own pace.