Friday, July 10, 2015

album review: 'cilvia demo' by isaiah rashad (two year anniversary)

I have no idea why I didn't cover this in 2014.

Well, okay, I have some idea. This record dropped in late January of last year, and I'll admit I was still very much on the learning curve of album reviews at that time, especially when it came to underground hip-hop. And part of it was a cheap justification on my part - I rarely if ever cover EPs, and Isaiah Rashad had said Cilvia Demo was an EP, even despite being longer than some full hip-hop albums.

But upon reflection, it's one of those records I probably should have covered regardless. Critics following hip-hop are always wise to keep a keen eye on Top Dawg Entertainment, and Isaiah Rashad was one of their first recruits beyond the original four rappers of Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock, two who dropped solid albums in 2014, one who dropped a near-classic this year, and one who has been keeping us waiting an exasperatingly long time for new material. A southern MC that had a knack for balancing more conscious bars with slightly more hedonistic material, at first glimpse it's almost a little surprising Isaiah Rashad didn't get a hell of a lot bigger in the mainstream, given his style.

And while fellow new arrival SZA generally underwhelmed me with her debut Z, I had some hope going into Cilvia Demo. The reception had been generally positive across the board, earning its fair share of critical accolades and probably only slipping off some lists due to being releasing in January and being forgotten, which can happen if you have a record with more of a subdued vibe. So I definitely took the time to dig deep into Cilvia Demo - was it worth all of your requests?

Well, yeah, definitely, because Cilvia Demo is a damn solid, impressively lyrical album that really did hit me surprisingly hard the more I listened through it. It is one of those albums that does feel a little monochromatic when it comes to its production and instrumentation, lacking the variety and punch to make specific songs stand out even beyond the very understated presentation - but really, when so much of it is this well done, I find it hard to get all that fussed about it.

But before I dig really deep into the lyrical and thematic meat of this album, let's talk about Isaiah Rashad himself, and the first word that immediately springs to mind is versatile. While he does force hard rhymes and has a few sloppier bars than I can really excuse across this album, I can't deny that his tactic for inflection and flow is pretty impressive, spanning his labelmates Kendrick and Schoolboy Q to OutKast and even Tupac, the latter especially on 'R.I.P. Kevin Miller'. I'm always a little hesitant about rappers so plainly imitating flows, as it doesn't always speak to Isaiah Rashad building a unique sound, but he brings enough together with good content, so I'm inclined to give him a pass. On top of that, the guest hooks he gets from SZA and Jean Deaux are pretty damn solid in matching the atmosphere, and the guest verses from Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock and Michael Da Vinci are all solid too. 

But really, this is Isaiah Rashad's show, and he does do a fair bit to distinguish himself as a unique personality outside of the rest of the TDE clique - which is why it's a shame his production doesn't often rise to match it. Rashad went on record saying he was aiming to create more of a smooth vibe with this record, and I can definitely buy that, but his choice of dusty, faded pianos, deep bass kicks, and sparse, rattling percussion does start to run together. It lends this album a feel of dour heaviness and while there are moments that do stand outthings - the mellow west-coast vibe of the title track, the wet jungle vibe of 'Ronnie Drake', the scratchy edge of 'Soliloquy' that picks up some organs on 'Heavenly Father', the bells on 'Modest', or the pan flute on the remix of 'Shot You Down' - it does make the record feel a little leaden and lacking in momentum. Now for the most part I can deal with that - the production's good enough that I can easily overlook, with only 'West Savannah' feeling a little overmixed in its obvious OutKast tribute - but it does mean this record can feel long even despite running under an hour.

And the other factor to that is the wordplay and themes - and on some level, I think Isaiah Rashad may have pushed for too much here, as this album tries to straddle a certain drugged-out chill hedonism and real social commentary and I'm not always sure it strikes a solid balance. It's easily the moments where the tracks focus on Rashad's quest for some form of nebulous clarity where this record gains the most focus and punch, starting early with the lament at the bad behaviours his absent father taught him on 'Hereditary', a figure with whom the estrangement comes up frequently. And really, that lack of a guiding figure is probably the biggest underlying theme and arc of this album, as Isaiah Rashad doesn't shy away from questioning the larger message that he himself takes and whether or not he should be considered a role model - or whether it's just inevitable due to his fame and success. He's more than aware of the parallel between his own absent father and overload of responsibilities and the oppressive neglect on the black community at large, and the parallel of their reactions through either violence, drugs, hedonism, or the underlying depression that lies at their core. Take a song like the title track, where he's hoping he and his girl can just stay cool and not draw undue attention that could start trouble from a system - and yet he sees the girl's young son who looks at him as a father figure, a role model, a position he struggles with repeatedly on this record. 

It speaks to an underlying and striking humility of the album on songs like 'Ronnie Drake', where he appropriates a line of Lil Wayne that previously ripped on less-successful conscious rappers and reappropriates it for populism, speaking instead as a comrade trying to survive and spread compassion for the community. Similar themes come through in 'Menthol' and 'Soliloquy' and 'Banana', where he castigates a broken system that will judge him unfairly and arbitrarily where all he's trying to do is find some peace of mind as he provides for his family - and songs like 'Heavenly Father' make finding it all the more difficult, as he cuts to the depression at the core, trying to rise above suicidal thoughts and finding it all the more difficult. But the song that perplexed me the most was 'Tranquillity', mostly because it acknowledges how society might lionize a leader and demonize those who bring them down, but there is a place for both, especially in the latter case when the leader has grown unjust - and in the biggest twist, Rashad often finds himself treating girls he's with care and respect much like their fathers, becoming the sort of leader who might be targeted. And oddly, even though I like songs like 'Shot You Down' and 'R.I.P. Kevin Miller' or 'Modest' or the well-executed Scarface tribute 'Brad Jordan', they don't really fit all that well on this record for me. They do add a certain lighter balance, but I'd argue that Isaiah Rashad's approach to more serious subject matter already captures that lighter touch, and thus they do feel a little less essential.

But as a whole, I'm going to repeat what so many other critics have already said about Cilvia Demo: it's excellent. If for some ungodly reason you haven't heard Isaiah Rashad's debut, you should - it's thoughtprovoking, well-presented, and while I will say the production can get a little similar and Isaiah Rashad could have refined his bars a little more, his subject matter makes up for a lot of it. For me, it's a solid 8/10 and definitely a recommendation. Looking forward to more from you, Isaiah Rashad - just call it a full album this time, so I don't make the mistake of missing it.

No comments:

Post a Comment