Credit: Top Dawg Ent.
by Michael Doub Music What Would Meek Do?

Isaiah Rashad | The House is Burning

August 19, 2021

The House is Burning finds Rashad asserting personhood over persona, to mostly career-stabilizing effect.

The frequency and speed with which musicians are now expected to release art and content makes sore thumbs of artists whose releases are fewer and further between. These absences can take on varying tenors, from mystifying to frustrating — though, in the case of Isaiah Rashad, it’s understandable that listeners might react to his five-year gap between albums with concern. In a widely read cover story released in GQ earlier this year, Rashad confirmed these suspicions and spoke directly about his struggles with substance abuse and social isolation after relocating to Los Angeles, reaching a rock bottom that he’s worked hard to climb out of in the time since. These startling disclosures set up certain expectations for his latest, evocatively titled The House is Burning, and the sort of personal narrativizing Rashad might engage in. But though there are indeed fiery cuts worthy of the album name, the majority of The House is Burning is unexpectedly tranquil in mood, with Rashad calmly assessing his damages and mostly shrugging them off. Though the tone is jarring on a record whose arrival is something of a return from wilderness, The House is Burning evinces the calm of a life lived, finding its protagonist free of expectations and confident in his signature musical strengths.

The musical strengths in question — namely, Rashad’s verbal dexterity and his beat selection’s union between the trunk rattles of west coast and southern hip hop — have been present since his debut, 2014’s Cilvia Demo. Then as now, Rashad dances between darkness and light, reveling in debauched arrogance on one song, and constructing dioramas of family strife on another. On The House is Burning, Rashad’s more contemplative palette wins out, with most of the album’s combustion quotient mainly relegated to the Lil Uzi Vert-featuring “From the Garden” and “Lay Wit Ya” (both album highlights). More typical are the album’s R&B cuts like the bubbly “Wat U Sed,” which leverages Rashad’s signature croak on hooks and verses that resemble vintage A$AP Ferg, or the dazed closer “HB2U,” a victory lap in subject and tone that resembles drifting on cruise control into the sunset. If the brighter tone of the record comes as a welcome surprise, it’s nonetheless tempting to imagine a version of The House is Burning that didn’t elide the details of his journey from Point A to Point B. The zombie metaphor of opener “Darkseid” comes closest, but addresses the subject in only the vaguest of terms; meanwhile, the ungenerous, if not unwarranted, speculation as to beef with TDE (Rashad’s label) is ruled out only by virtue of the album’s features list and several half-hearted shoutouts.

The album’s avoidance of these topics — and indeed the emotional high-wire acts that characterized Rashad’s earlier releases — might disappoint some listeners, but its reorientation around core components comes with its own benefits. This less “lyrical miracle” version of Rashad is unexpectedly at home in the fluidity of the streaming era that his earlier, more regional music pre-dated (the excellent Smino-featuring “Claymore” is a potent example of his newfound malleability). The album’s lower emotional stakes also come as something of a relief after Rashad’s public struggles, in that way recalling the pivot taken on Danny Brown’s most recent release uknowhatimsayin¿, a record whose tempered, occasionally staid tone was mitigated by the indication that the Brown who made it was in a better place than his previous records suggested. The same could be said for the Isaiah Rashad of The House is Burning: initially pegged as the next Kendrick Lamar, and later a lost cause, here he is just another person who has, in the last year, decided to prioritize his own long-term sustainability and chosen personhood over persona.

Published as part of Album Roundup — July 2021 | Part 3.