For a certain time, it seemed like Isaiah Rashad might follow in Kendrick Lamar’s immediate footsteps as the newest rap star of the formidable Top Dog Entertainment roster. Then, he went silent. The then-22-year-old Chattanooga native had left Middle Tennessee State University to pursue a rap career and, by 2013, signed to the California-based label TDE; the following year, he released his debut mixtape Cilvia Demo. With Lamar, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, ScHoolboy Q (known together as Black Hippy) already leading TDE, Rashad — along with SZA — brought a new perspective and embraced his identity as the lone Southerner among a crew of L.A. heads. In 2016, he released his critically acclaimed debut album, The Sun’s Tirade. A sold-out national tour and festival appearances leveraged his success — and lined his pockets — sooner than he could keep up.
After that first taste of stardom, shit hit the fan. Rashad succumbed to crippling alcoholism — a disease he revealed runs in his family — and financial hardships in the form of frivolously spending on himself and his friends to the point where he was forced to move back to his mom’s house in Chattanooga. Rashad learned the hard way that being signed to a major label, especially as a newcomer, means nothing when you can’t hold up your end of the bargain. Long, unannounced hiatuses seem commonplace with TDE artists; Lamar also went ghost after the release of his 2012 major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Between then and 2015’s classic To Pimp a Butterfly, the Compton rapper embarked on a journey to South Africa, an experience that allowed him to “see all the things he wasn’t taught.” At the time, Lamar said that on his followup he felt he had to be responsible for enlightening his fans on the struggles faced in the homeland while equally expressing and making space for his own vices. Rashad’s enlightenment came in the form of self-discovery, and he feels like he owes his fans some closure, telling GQ, “ I owe finishing what I said I was going to be.” In 2018, Rashad moved back to L.A. and nearly hit rock bottom. And after confiding in his boss, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, Rashad spent the majority of his 2019 summer in a California rehab.
This past spring, the artist with so much promise interrupted resurfaced with a tell-all Fader cover story about where he’d been all this time. He also unveiled the first single, “Lay Wit Ya,” off his new album The House Is Burning, out today. A loose metaphor for his life the past five years, Rashad’s new project — this one recorded fully sober — finds him at his most refined and self-realized. “It’s saying your world’s on fire, but you have the option to recover and bounce back — simple as that,” he’s able to reflect now, sitting in his new BMW X6. This album, Rashad is living fully in the present and no longer overcomplicating his raps; thanks to a mantra he adapted from working in the Cave with producer Kenny Beats, “don’t overthink shit” has become the Chattanooga rapper’s personal motto. “If you don’t ever get yourself straight, who the fuck is you gon’ help, main?,” he ponders on the album’s outro and longest track, “HB2U.” The House Is Burning possesses his usual pensive, boom-bap odes like “Don’t Shoot” and “HB2U,” with a sprinkle of nonchalant bangers like “From the Garden” (with Lil Uzi Vert) and “Lay Wit Ya.” He got crafty with his features, too, working with artists he’s personally a fan of from Smino (“Claymore”) to 6lack (“Score”).
The 30-year-old is in a better place. He’s “staying on his shit” by way of spending more time with his family and friends. He’s reading more (mostly comics and, right now, Stephen King’s The Dead Zone and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer). He’s growing closer and more fundamental to his TDE peers. And on this album, Rashad is celebrating his personal and career rebirth. What hasn’t changed? He was, and still is, TDE’s secret weapon.
How are you feeling?
Right now I’m feeling really good, energized. [Laughs.] I be in a pretty chill mode usually, I’m just excited about this album coming out. As it gets closer, I’m starting to feel more like a kid on Christmas.
What’s the personal meaning behind the album’s title and what should others take from it?
The House Is Burning is basically saying your world’s on fire, but you have the option to recover [and] bounce back, simple as that. From pollution or whatever the fuck, if you want to go on a macro scale. If you want to go micro: Your crib’s fucked up. [You can] still fix that, but you can’t dwell on it. And you can’t try to fix something that’s on fire, but you can definitely start over. There’s no shame in starting over.
I read that Kenny Beats has aided a lot with your studio and recording process, especially with not overthinking your raps. How much of the album was you freestyling versus being calculated through pen and paper?
Sixty percent of it is just loose ideas. Off top of the head, don’t question them. Just do it and build upon them type shit. “Score” is a freestyle, “Claymore” is a freestyle, “Hey Mista” is a freestyle, the intro is a freestyle, the “9-3 Freestyle” is a freestyle, “True Story” is a freestyle. I think just about everything is. “HB2U,” “From the Garden” is technically a freestyle. Most of it is freestyle, I can’t even think of which ones weren’t.
Do you prefer doing it that way?
Hell no, I just had to try it. [Laughs.] I had to give it a shot. It’s fun, though. It’s a quicker process, but I wouldn’t say I like it more.
Well, from what I heard, the freestyling seems to work.
In your Fader cover story, you described having the “quickest fall from grace.” What are you actively doing now to prevent that from happening again, in so much as you can control?
Staying on my shit … actually no, that’s not even a good answer. I’ve been just staying connected to my friends and my management more than I was before. And just staying busy or at least staying busy with somebody, you know? Keeping my shit together.
You also mentioned in that cover that you spent a lot of money on your friends during that time. How much of that was you being nice versus people taking advantage of your generosity? Have you had to cut off anybody?
Fifty-fifty. I ain’t really cut off nobody, just readjusted relationships. Everybody my fam. We done went through rough patches and shit, but I ain’t cut off nobody.
How has your relationship with your older music, the stuff you recorded not sober, changed? What do you hear in yourself now that you didn’t hear back then, and vice versa?
I think doing it sober was more of a challenge of being creative without anything, like, loosening [me] up, besides smoking some weed or whatever. But the changes are just … I’m older. So the things that matter to me are a little bit, like, Earth-based and [feeling secure]. My family [matters] even more than it used to. I’m not really good at examining my own changes, I’m gonna keep it a bean with you. [Laughs.] I’m so in the present. Sometimes I look back. But I don’t know, even when I examine music from before, I think I’m better at using words; I’m better at simplifying what I have to say versus overcomplicating some shit.
What are some of the major changes you’ve seen in the industry since five years ago? Obviously we’re in the pandemic and all that, but with the streaming era in full effect now and the way fans value music changing, what are some of those differences you’ve noticed?
It seems like people’s attention spans have been kind of short since the introduction of the phone. You just adjust to it. People like long songs if it’s a good tone. People like anything that’s good; you can watch a three-hour movie if it’s good. They’ll watch or listen to whatever as long as it’s good. I consider the length of a project, but not the length of a song.
How has TDE and your role at the label changed, if it has at all, in that same time frame?
My opinion is more a factor these days, but nothing too crazy. Of course, the management’s grown and we have new artists and people around. That’s been really the only difference. We seem closer this past year, too.
How have you dealt with fan expectations surrounding this album, considering it’s been so long?
I’m blessed that these guys — and girls — seem to just want to have some music. So the expectation is, like, Just make sure it’s good. Make sure the outcome is high quality. And I think we did that.
You’ve said that you make sure you give them vulnerable pieces of yourself since they’re the ones that fund your career with streaming, tours, etc. At the end of the day, do you make music for your fans or for yourself?
I’ll always make it for myself, but I consider them when I’m putting it out. If I was doing it strictly for myself, the material would be different.
This has been one of [my] craziest journeys of self-realization, or at least a journey to self-realization, in a while. I’m just hype to be here. I’m glad to be outside and doing shit and continue doing shit ’cause there ain’t nothing else to do except to do something fun, you know what I’m saying? Do something that’s going to do something better for your life. We got too much time out here to self-destruct.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.