Friday, September 9, 2016

album review: 'the sun's tirade' by isaiah rashad

Here's something I don't often talk about when it comes to records: timing. Specifically the timing of when I might hear something in comparison with the general public - and while you would usually think that wouldn't matter all that much, it does play something of a role when you consider the hype cycle in the popular consciousness. Now since I'm a music critic I'm normally ahead of the cycle - I've heard the record early or at release, and by the time the rest of the mainstream catches up - which can be anywhere from a week to months later - I'm going to have very different feelings about the project, especially depending how much time I've sat with it or whether it's made a big impact. An easy example nowadays is twenty one pilots - I was cheerleading for the bad in early summer last year, and even though I still like Blurryface a lot, I'm also keenly aware that the band might wear out their welcome if they keep releasing weaker singles. 

But I don't want to say I'm always ahead of the game - on the flip side, I got on board with Isaiah Rashad over a full year after the release of his breakout project Cilvia Demo in 2014, a project that many consider his debut album at nearly fifty minutes... but it was an EP, and I don't normally cover those, only talking about it in the summer of 2015 as my second year anniversary review voted by you guys. And yeah, the project was great, a genuinely insightful and versatile project that showed the aftermath of family estrangement, overloaded responsibilities, and the complicated position of leadership that he falls into thanks to his success. And yet while I was enjoying the project late, Isaiah Rashad was seeing his life reflect art, sinking into a Xanax and alcohol addiction that nearly led to label conflicts with TDE, depressants reflecting isolation and inactivity weighing on him all the more heavily. Indeed, you could argue it's a miracle that we got this project at all, given how quickly drug abuse can destroy careers, but Isaiah Rashad pulled out and more than two years later has delivered a proper full-length follow-up called The Sun's Tirade. I can't imagine for long-time fans how much anticipation there is here, but you can bet I was curious about this - so how did it turn out?

Well, it's frustrating, that's for damn sure, the sort of project that on the surface has to be concealing subtext or potent themes... and yet the more I listen through The Sun's Tirade, the less I find that connects on a deeper level. And sure, you could argue that this record is transitional, more intended for introspective vibes, digging into the mire of indecision, depression, and intoxication from which Isaiah Rashad managed to claw himself free... and yet even with some decent vibes I can't say I like the execution as much as the ideas. I won't say this is a bad record - the production and guest performances really do step up a lot here - but this was very close to becoming a slog of a listen, and not the sort that I can see myself wanting to revisit any time soon.

And before we start, keep in mind that this sort of exploration of depression isn't new. Throughout the past few years of covering hip-hop I've covered a wide range of artists tackling this topic, from the antisocial caustic side of Cage and Earl Sweatshirt to the complicated lingering pain of Pharoahe Monch and Kendrick Lamar to the artists that can fall in between, like Atmosphere and Aesop Rock. And yet Isaiah Rashad's path steers away from any of these: outside of scattered interludes from co-president of TDE Dave Free trying to spur Isaiah Rashad to find a topic and put out something, this record has neither the interest or focus to really tackle that head-on, or even get to the roots of what triggered the dangerous addictions. It's more of a wallow - fully aware that he's hurting himself more than he's hurting anyone else, but he's so awash in alcohol and Xanax that he can hardly care, clinging to sparse happy moments around an audience to whom he struggles to convey his pain. And you know, I can empathize here: feeling like you're going through the motions on a path that'll inevitably fade back into obscurity, with few ideas and an increasing disconnection from the world and people around him, especially when all of that success he has received fails to satisfy. And we do get nuggets of clarity to call that out, questioning how to convey this pain to a predominantly white audience who isn't used to being judged no matter what he does, terrified to face the reality that comes with growing up... and yet between the margins and buried in the final moments of the song, the shame that comes with knowing that he's insulated from larger consequences thanks to his success as a rapper - he's inside the padded room. No wonder so much of his vocals feel smothered in effects and distortion - of the many records that call themselves trap, this is one of the few that feels inescapable.

And the production definitely serves to intensify that atmosphere - not so much smoky but listless and thick, the dank atmosphere that comes with trudging through a swamp in hundred degree weather. The beats are half-assembled, clattering against funk-touched bass and guitar like on 'Free Lunch' or the first half of 'Rope/rosegold' or synths that slowly oscillate and curdle around the mix, like the album centerpiece 'Stuck In The Mud' or the touches of sax and sparse guitar on 'Brenda'. There are moments that pick up a bit of momentum: even if I didn't like the vocal overlay I did like Zacari and especially Kendrick Lamar against the slick guitar and sharper drums on 'Wat's Wrong?', a song focusing on further paralysis that comes with too many ideas and dichotomies, or the sharper tap against the whistle, bass, and sax on 'Tity And Dolla' that transitions into a solid trap beat that Jay Rock rides effortlessly. And then there's 'Don't Matter', which picks up an explosive drumline reminiscent of OutKast's 'B.O.B.' for probably the most propulsive beat on this record, a welcome shot of energy of which this album could have definitely used more. And that's the two sides of this record: I get the languid, stoned-out feel that comes with the slow pace and sparse beats and flattened synths and spacious textures - but it's not a mix that creates a lot of emptiness or negative space to intensify isolation, which means that I keep expecting for the vibes to evolve or build more melodies and it doesn't happen. The few beat switch-ups we get transition with audible thuds, and that's not counting the oily veneer that covers otherwise okay songs. The worst example is the beeping oily shrillness of the Mike Will Made It-produced 'A Lot', but we also get them on 'AA' where the connections to the group behind the acronym are tenuous at best, or the flat wiry synths on 'By George (Outro)'. What this translates to is a record that feels a lot longer than it should, with a monochromatic mood and hooks...

Well, this is where we have to talk about Isaiah Rashad himself... and I'd argue he's the biggest weak link on this record. And the frustrating thing is that I totally get why he utilized this vocal delivery and style: it's choppy, it's ragged, it's meant to sound as if he doesn't care yet cares entirely too much, the sort of half-choked delivery that Kendrick Lamar delivered on 'u' on To Pimp A Butterfly. And if I was looking for the one thing I didn't really like on that album, it was that style of vocal delivery - it felt overly theatrical in an oddly melodramatic way and Kendrick only barely made it work. With Isaiah Rashad and his listless delivery... I'm sorry, but it works even less. And when you further muffle him behind additional filters in an attempt to sound lo-fi - which can clash in a jarring way when there are guest singers or rappers on the album - it comes across less like an isolating technique and more of finding a way to make it somewhat listenable. And that's before you get places where he will mumble or half-croon his way through bars with little actual energy that feels really slapdash: rhyming words with themselves, repeating syllables or phrases to fill up space, dropping the rhythm entirely, there are way to convey that you don't care without stumbling as a rapper. And what's even more exasperating is that between this you can hear fragments of half-drunken muttering and even laughter on 'A Lot', which raises the question how much of this is genuine sloppiness in the studio, or an affectation for the record - and yet both cases, is that really an excuse, especially when some of the flows like on 'Park' can feel painfully basic? I know Isaiah Rashad is a better rapper than this, and while I would get it if it's an artistic decision, it still doesn't sound good.

Ugh, this was a frustrating listen, mostly because on some level this album conveys exactly what Isaiah Rashad wants. If he's looking to convey depression, writer's block, and the miserable feelings you get feeling trapped in your own life and ashamed for even talking about it, he pulled it off... but beyond capturing that mood for over an hour, the rest of the content and delivery feels shoddily constructed, straining for ideas and spinning its wheels to flesh something out. It's a draining listen but not in a good way, so turgid and frustrating to see a rapper who already was holding responsibility heavily collapse under the weight. And again, I can applaud the artistic achievement in capturing the mood, but by not expanding beyond that it's not a record I'll feel inclined to revisit any time soon. For me, I'm thinking a 6/10, and while I can recommend it to some diehard Isaiah Rashad fans, I can also see those who were looking for more mature insight being turned off by this. And those of you who have waited longer... give it a listen, but keep in mind the best way I've dealt with tough situations - and records - is to dig deep in, find the focus, and power through.

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