Feelin’ The Love
Isaiah Rashad’s latest album has those who doubted him thinking twice. After going ghost for the last five years, the Top Dawg Entertainment MC is back on his bully.
Interview: Kemet High
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
Isaiah Rashad is back. It’s been half a decade since the 30-year-old Chattanooga, Tenn. native released his sophomore album, The Sun’s Tirade, and blessed his fans with a ruminating project. Isaiah spent a good amount of that time cooking up his third album, The House Is Burning, released in July, and parenting his three kids.
The five-year gap that Isaiah took gave him a chance to restart, recalibrate and rebuild. The Top Dawg Entertainment artist admits he didn’t think that many people “liked me in the first place,” and it took him making a return to rap to find out. The 16-song album features assists from artists like Lil Uzi Vert and Smino, plus his TDE familia Jay Rock and SZA, among others. Isaiah was once one of the rookies coming up under his fellow label signees, though now, he’s established deference as a big bro to the younger acts around him.
Similar to what made his presence felt on his cult classic debut LP, Cilvia Demo, The House Is Burning finds Isaiah in his position as a middle child, threading the beats produced by the likes of Kenny Beats, Kal Banx and Hollywood Cole with conceptual storytelling that would be applauded in any generation. Isaiah’s signature drowsy flow fluidly connects his words like an apostrophe.
Checking in from L.A., Isaiah opens up to XXL about thrusting himself back into the rap game, the sound coming from his city, setting the right tone for his children, the change in his faith and the pivotal moment he experienced with TDE.
XXL: How did you find your zen when putting yourself back into the forefront?
Isaiah Rashad: I trust my management. They trust me to make the songs, I trust them to put it together at the end… This is my third time doing it with TDE, with the fam. So, it’s like, I just got shit to do.
What would you say is most different about your mindset 10 years ago compared to now?
I’m 30. I was 20 then. I don’t even know how to compare those two people. They’re so vastly different, but they’re like very much the same nigga. I do the same shit. I like the same kind of TV mostly. I watch less cartoons than I used to watch or the ones I watch are way more gorier. I just like darker comedy and I’m OK with uncomfortable truths more. And, I get up early and I clean my room when I get up. If I did something last night, I usually fix it if I didn’t fix it the night before. I’m trying to cut lazy out and just work, to be honest.
What was the process like of putting your new album The House Is Burning together?
It’s not like a magical thing for me. I really just go to the studio, make some shit and go home. It’s like an ego thing versus a moment for me. It’s like, I need to get this off. Or, I can’t think about other shit I be thinking about because I got these raps I want to hear or this beat I’ve been holding onto. So, it’s like clearing out my head. Only seldom does it turn into going to work to do some shit. I just be needing to do this shit.
What’s the Chattanooga, Tenn. hip-hop scene like now and how is it different from when you were coming up?
Chattanooga, Tenn. grew my appreciation of what I would call the local sound and counterculture rap where I started to understand that every city or every state has a distinctive sound versus necessarily the radio. So, I think it reflects sonically some of that shit. But, it’s like, pureness. It sounds like people are rapping for their friends and not for the world. I try to make sure that my shit sounds like that no matter how expanded shit goes.
Which artists have you been bumping lately?
Everybody. I listen to a lot of shit. I keep listening to this nigga Cico P [from] Tampa. I don’t know why that shit so hard to me. Of course, like Kodak [Black] and shit. I been listening to Billie Eilish.I been listening to Vince [Staples’] new project. I been actually listening to Bia before the shit with Nicki [Minaj], [“Whole Lotta Money”].
I went back and tried to listen to Savage Mode 2 because I thought I missed something. And just everything, dawg. A lot of Boosie, just going back on that type of shit. When I’ve been here in L.A., that shit made me feel like back home. But you know, [Baby] Keem, Lil Baby, shit like that. I listen to Lil Keed. I like Lil Keed a lot. A lot of Thugga [Young Thug]. A lot of Gunna.
You have this affinity for R&B as well as hip-hop. Who are some of your favorite artists of all time?
Anthony Hamilton, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, I’m a huge Usher fan, Isaac Hayes—Hot Buttered Soul, that’s a really good album. James Brown. Bootsy Collins, Rick James, all of them. I listen to a lot of muthafuckas. My absolute favorite, though, is Frankie Beverly.
Why is that?
My mom and my grandma.
Is that how you got your seasoned R&B taste?
The women in my life. My grandma, my aunts and my mom. And then the rap shit came from my dad. It kind of expanded from there.
What kind of rappers was your dad playing?
KRS-One, Wyclef [Jean], Mystikal, Master P, shit like that. Skinny Pimp, 8Ball and MJG. Nappy Roots and a lot of Cash Money.
You’re always speaking candidly about the Black experience in your music.
For example, on tracks like “Food for Thought,” off Welcome To The Game, you’re referencing Fred Hampton. On “Ronnie Drake,” on Cilvia Demo, you have lyrics like, “Hope they don’t kill you ’cause you’re Black today.” How did you educate yourself? Why is it important for you to speak that truth?
My mom instilled a lot of that shit in me early on that I don’t have a great answer for. The way I think and the way that I look at the world, I’d like to think that I’m pretty present with what’s going on. But I say this though, none of those I ever had were like something I actually thought about. It was some shit. The way I come up with raps, I try to put myself in a zone for like, 15, 20 minutes where I can cut out everything else and just do that. That was just a line that came up ’cause it made sense to me. When I wrote it down I was like, Damn, this sentence makes hella sense. I like this. I like the “eulogy be so moving” part. That’s my favorite part.
Because that shit is real. Niggas always got something real powerful to say about you after you dead.
What did you think of Judas and the Black Messiah?
A tad bit underwhelmed. I feel like they could’ve went into more detail. But I thought the acting was great. I like what the actors did. I like how the directors put it together, creatively. I know it’s also probably a challenging movie to put out in certain climates. But I liked it. I just wished they could’ve expanded on it more.
Fact or cap, you got a picture of Tupac Shakur on your wall?
I got a little portrait, yeah. His jail picture in my crib. ’Cause it’s hard. And he’s a legend. It was just hard. He been through something.
How has your relationship with God or faith changed and grown over the years? On “2X Pills,” you spit, “I heard my first lie in a church from a preacher.”
The solidness that I have with my faith has definitely changed. It’s solidified. The only problem I ever had with religion was people.
I always think that I should see as many people as I see go to church to be more like, outward, working for the community. We should see more things getting built from places that don’t get taxed. So, I kind of wonder. I don’t wonder in a way where I’m trying to be too over-judgmental. I go to church when I get the opportunity to. I just speak my mind. The lyrics probably sound like I have a way more complicated relationship with shit that I do.
How does it play into your career to be on TDE with such favored acts?
It was pivotal. I don’t talk about it that much, but it was on some shit where when I was goddamn, like 19, 20, around the OD [Overly Dedicated] coming out, I was like I wanna be signed to these niggas. It was never nothing that I like, sought after… But it just happened a year-and-a-half later. It’s some shit that me and the homies were talking about, like, we should all try to get signed to these niggas. And it was tight.
So, I’d say it’s definitely one of the most pivotal parts. I know I came around at the end of what [you] could call the blog era. My album came out, Cilvia [Demo] came out right before streaming really hit, so I know I experienced a different type of media and all of that type of shit. Definitely pivotal though. Probably one of the most pivotal parts. Besides deciding to rap, getting signed to TDE is probably like one and two.
You almost got dropped from TDE off your work ethic. How did you fix that?
Working, really. It wasn’t ever a problem with quality or anything. I would just get so in my head that I didn’t want to do shit. Even if I’m not always trying 1,000 percent to be a super creative, I’m always keeping my creative sword sharp and that be more important. ’Cause like, you’re not always going to come up with your best song every day, but if you don’t practice at it every day, you ain’t going to make your best song.
What would you say right now is your position in the label, seeing how your labelmates the Black Hippies—Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul—are veterans and Reason and Zacari are more rookies? You seem to be in between. [Editor’s note: This interview was done before Kendrick announced his departure from TDE.]
Niggas tend to ask me my opinion sometimes. That’s about it. It used to be I just pulled up and did my shit. Now they might call and ask me, “Yo, what you think about this?” when somebody else is with them. I’m still an artist. I’m big bro to some of the younger artists. Me and the Black Hippies be having a more peer-to-peer relationship, but them are still my big brothers.
Would you ever want your children to get into music?
I don’t know. I try not to think of my kids being as twisted as I was. So, the fears and share of things that I experienced, I don’t really expect them to necessarily experience those certain things. But yeah, I want my daughter to learn how to kickbox right now. Kickboxing can’t be that much scarier. Getting hit in the face is what this shit done felt like a couple of times.
Are there any major changes that you want to make in that position where you have children looking up to you that were maybe absent in your life?
I want to be somebody that has a savings account and has real equity and decides not to go out because they’re tired, because it’s right for the body. I wanna be that for people looking up to me. Less in the mix or making the mix, creating the shit. I rather go to more release parties for myself than go to real parties.
What else you got going on this year?
I got a tour, baby! I got a tour this fall. I got plenty of other shit to drop. Plenty of other collabs to do. And I got kids to raise, so, I’m trying to make sure all of this shit goes smoothly, baby.
See Isaiah Rashad Photos
Check out more from XXL magazine's Fall 2021 issue when it hits newsstands in October 2021, including our cover story with Tyler, The Creator, Lil Nas X's battle for respect in hip-hop, Wale talks about his new album, Folarin 2, find out more about Maxo Kream in Doin' Lines, Bia reflects on how far she's come in her career after "Whole Lotta Money" success and more.