Can we fall in love while Southernplayalistic banging through the night? It’s the question posed on “West Savannah,” a song located right in the middle of Isaiah Rashad’s debut album Cilvia Demo. Rashad isn’t afraid to wear his southern influences on his sleeve, from the aforementioned Outkast reference to shout outs to Scarface, Master P, Juvenile and many more. It’s the type of hero worship that could undermine any record, but Isaiah snaps it into focus when he answers his own question: “At least we fell in love with something greater than debating suicide.”
2014 is set to be the year of Top Dawg Entertainment. After spending last year basking in the glow of Kendrick’s critical and commercial success and inserting the good kid into the mainstream, the Los Angeles label is primed to bring the rest of the crew there too. Schoolboy Q is dropping his long awaited Oxymoron later this month, Ab-Soul has been rumored to be working on his (possibly titled) “Black Lip Pastor” and of course there’s Kendrick, who shakes the earth with every new verse. Bur first off there’s Isaiah Rashad, the newest member of TDE. Perhaps that pressure is why his project is titled as a demo, to let everyone know he’s not at the same level as Black Hippy. He’s just marveling at the momentous year this will be for the label. But Cilvia Demo more than proves that he’s ready to play with these guys; it’s another engaging chapter in the book of music history that TDE is rapidly rewriting.
This has been a hard record to write about because it defies conventions. It’s an ambitious coming of age album yet incredibly insular. Simultaneously universal and singular. Isaiah delves deep into cliches, shouting out old legends and claiming the game needs saving, but manages to revive some life to them. Cilvia Demo touches on some deep complex issues; how the plight of young black men is tied to the perception of hip hop, specifically the southern hip hop that he fell in love with and is now being paraded around for laughs, and the drug addiction that seems to be only solution for the depression that ensues. Isaiah manage to glide over these major issues, turning them into allusions rather than news headlines, and uses them to strengthen his story: How can I be a great father when I never had an example?
The shadow of Isaiah’s father is the only thing that’s blunt about the record. He’s brought up on the album opener “Hereditary,” where after telling his girl she’s wasting her time on him he drops “my daddy taught me how to drink my pain away, my daddy taught me how to use somebody. My daddy taught me how to smoke my load and go, my daddy taught me you don’t need nobody.” He goes on to explain in “Banana.” “My daddy left me with no details, came back with a bitch and a stepson, I guess he forgot that he left something.” But Isaiah doesn’t dwell on these events, rather he weaves them into his blue collar story. Much of this tape is reality rap at its finest as he raps about how music will be his way out of flipping burgers and selling retail and how he’s “done grown up for his child sake.” That’s really the crux of the album, the transition between growing up and being grown. He’s trying to bed this girl but is distracted when he sees her kid looking at him the same way he used to when his dad came back home. He lashes out at his baby momma on “Tranquility” and then is immediately worried about what his son will think.
This leads back to Cilvia Demo‘s preoccupation with southern icons. “R.I.P. Kevin Miller,” titled after Master P’s late brother, is half sermon half lament. It’s a motivational speech about priorities and how the rappers of his youth are being misinterpreted. He chants “I need diamond teeth living like it’s 1998, back when Percy was the king, back when Juvie was the great, bitch this doobie is the bait, Patton taught me how to pimp, like one day you’re here then gone, that’s why Chad was downing shrimp.” He connects the balling of his idols to the work ethic that got them there, screaming at his peers to wake up and find some ambition. This type of rapping is usually uninteresting, a holier-than-thou “let’s go back to the good old days” moralizing, but Isaiah pulls it off because of the intensely personal touch he brings to his memories, whether it’s Outkast’s debut keeping him from committing suicide or transforming the rapper Scarface into a symbol of confidence and a wizened voice of responsibility on “Brad Jordan,” similar to what Outkast did with “Rosa Parks” way back when. It all comes together on “Heavenly Father,” a spiritual plea for some kind of guidance. On the first verse Isaiah sings “Now everybody telling me a lie, Lordie give me something for my soul” before spitting “The story stole, they tell it till it’s wrong, they glorify the horror and the wealth.” On the second verse he brings it back home in horrifying detail: “And they don’t know my issues as a child, because I was busy cutting on myself. And hanging on the playground wasn’t wrong until you got a rope up on your neck.” The song ends with Isaiah rapping at everyone else “These niggas really think I give a fuck about the shit they give a fuck about” before ending somberly “And I’m so misrepresented by these niggas who claim trill and their souls were never in it.” Suddenly the trends that have been so popular the last few years get viciously rendered distasteful.
This is all heavy content and you can’t rap about this kind of stuff if you can’t back it up or make it listenable. Luckily, Isaiah is signed to the label where “your favorite rappers get replaced” and the tape bangs from front to back. Isaiah is a very talented MC. He can rap his ass off, like on “Soliloquy” where he just blacks out on the track for almost two minutes over dissonant jazz breaks. He can condense incredibly complex issues into a single couplet, like on “Ronnie Drake” where he says “Don’t call me a nigga, unless you call me my nigga” and “gotta look real and tough, gotta keep your hands in the cart, know they stealing stuff.” His southern voice has incredible versatility, as he can drop into a raspy croon on “Hereditary” and “West Savannah” as easily as a chest beating chant on “R.I.P. Kevin Miller” and “Modest.” TDE production crew Digi-Phonics don’t have any input in the record (except for the lovely “Menthol,” produced by Kendrick favorite Sounwave), and yet Cilvia Demo has the same loping jazz loops, the same warm airy feeling as the older 2011 TDE releases like Kendrick’s Section.80, Schoolboy’s Setbacks, and Ab-Soul’s Longterm Mentality. The lightness of the production counterbalances the weight of Isaiah’s thoughts. It’s why the record is sometimes hard to engage; it’s as if the whole album is an aside. It’s something you can zone out to and have it wash over you or engage it with all of its layers.
Cilvia Demo shares a lot of common themes with Kendrick’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and the rest of TDE. It deals with the golden age of hip hop not through appropriation but through inspiration, a way of writing the next chapter. It has that warm feeling of rapping about past heroes while knowing you’re becoming one yourself. Isaiah actually managed to pull it off. The new member of Top Dawg Entertainment was able to create an album that does for the south what Kendrick and the others did for the west. Black Hippy doesn’t show up on this record, just Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock on the very last song, a victory lap instead of a consolation prize. With his debut out of the way, Isaiah Rashad is going to have to create his own major label masterpiece like the rest of the crew but you get the sense that he’s not worried about that kind of pressure. As he says on the tape, “I’m blessed now, I’m only stressing bout the stress now.” Maybe some kid in Tennessee will find Cilvia Demo and fall in love with it and bump it through the night.