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April 16, 2024

Isaiah Rashad plays high-energy show

By DUBRAY KINNEY | April 6, 2017

The young audience that filled Isaiah Rashad’s show shouted “Zaywop” in unison in excitement for the Tennessee rapper’s entrance. Shortly afterwards, he stormed the stage mid-flow, with an energy that I personally wasn’t expecting. Really, that was the dominant theme of the night: subverting expectations.

Isaiah Rashad proves to be a divisive rapper, especially when you compare him to the breadth of his label, Top Dawg Entertainment. His 2014 debut studio release, the EP Cilvia Demo, launched him into the airwaves for many rap fans.

Cilvia Demo features a variety of themes, including police brutality and substance abuse (which he would come back to in his next release).

The positive reaction to Cilvia Demo, Rashad’s inclusion on the 2014 XXL Freshman Class list (which is a list of rappers that were poised to break out in the year of the list’s release) and the increased hype around Top Dawg Entertainment led to many questions throughout 2015 about when Rashad’s album might come out. Rashad’s follow-up and debut studio album, The Sun’s Tirade, was positively received by critics, but some fans felt that it left something to be desired.

The Sun’s Tirade touched on topics of depression, anxiety and addiction in a number of uncomfortable but subdued ways, making it the near-unanimously agreed upon best hip-hop release of 2016 for The News-Letter’s Arts Staff.

It’s an important album in that context, and coming into the show, I had plenty of questions on how such introspective songs would be performed live. Within moments of the show’s beginning, I had my answer.

Isaiah Rashad brought an infectious energy to his songs with this performance, rattling through songs like “Menthol,” “Stuck in the Mud” and “Shot You Down” with an energy that almost forced the crowd to sing along.

The infectious energy of the show felt a bit weird to me, however. As someone who resonated with this album through its sadder topics, it felt a bit weird to party to it, especially in such an aggressive way.

Lyrics like, “I can’t admit / I’ve been depressed / I hit a wall, ouch” or “Praying god pay my Cable / Splurging out one more favor” from Rashad’s “Dressed Like Rappers” don’t really translate well to a roaring live performance. Rashad seemed to speed through lyrics like this, which carry a heavy emotional resonance to me.

A similar feeling fell over Rashad’s performance of, “Menthol” which contains bars that translate well to loud shouts but also a contingent of lyrics that feel wistful, especially those around the chorus.

“Heavenly Father” falls into the same problem with the core of the song dealing with Rashad’s lack of a father-figure and his struggles with depression. The suicidal imagery of the song is hard to shrug off.

“And they don’t know my issues as a child / Cuz I was busy cutting on myself / And playing on a playground wasn’t wrong / Until you got a rope around your neck,” raps Rashad throughout “Heavenly Father.”

That said, denying Rashad’s skills as a performer would be idiotic. He gets the entire crowd involved in a way that many rappers struggle to. A few songs into his set, he stopped for a water break. This water break wasn’t exactly for him but for the audience as he and his crew threw out water bottles to the crowd with shouts of, “stay hydrated” following behind the thrown bottles.

For the entirety of the hour and change that Rashad performed, his energy level remained skyhigh, even dropping down off the stage into the audience for his final few songs.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the concert was the guest appearance by D.C. rapper GoldLink, who just recently released his debut studio album (check out Will Kirsch’s review of GoldLink’s album above). GoldLink and Rashad have a friendship that goes back to their untitled track released in 2016 on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 Show. That song, slow in its execution but rhythmically sound in its intent and groove, wasn’t what the two performed, but rather GoldLink’s new hit, “Crew” which features Brent Faiyaz and fellow D.C. rapper Shy Glizzy (who unfortunately didn’t show up).

Even as a GoldLink fan, I was more than a little surprised that so many people knew the words to GoldLink’s “Crew.” His latest album hasn’t received anything in the way of promotion, and I haven’t heard “Crew” on the radio, or a promo playlist once, so it must’ve been a positive sign for GoldLink that his DMV fanbase still rocked with him this much.

Following the performance of “Crew,” GoldLink slinked to the back and hung out around the DJ’s setup for the rest of the performance.

As Rashad tied up his set with a performance of “4r Da Squaw,” I realized that the new energy with which Isaiah performed the song might highlight that the rapper is in a better place than he was during the recording of The Sun’s Tirade. Watching him throw his all into the stage performance of some of my favorite songs (though he didn’t play the album’s second best song, “AA”) left me with a huge grin on my face.

“4r Da Squaw” ended and Rashad shouted out his goodbyes to the crowd as his DJ threw on a non-Isaiah hit, “Look At Me!” by XXXTentatcion. Rashad and his crew threw themselves into the crowd, surfing through it to the song’s chorus, “Look at me!” The entire venue flipped its lid, jumping to XXXTentacion’s viral hit.

“Look At Me!” turned into Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” which eventually turned into “M.A.A.D City” before the lights turned down and the show formally ended.

Leaving the show I had many thoughts. Rap as an art form operates better in an aggressive, energetic manner when it comes to live shows, yet Rashad’s songs don’t really give off that kind of vibe in the studio release. Still, the performance was one of the best ones I’ve seen this year.

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