In an hour, Isaiah Rashad is about to buy his first pair of Air Jordans. In the meantime, he's sitting in my living room wearing wool socks and Birkenstocks.
"I love Birkenstocks," Rashad says, clad in designer sweats, Adidas bucket hat and oversized glasses that make him look like the nexus between Mookie and Buggin' Out from Do the Right Thing. "You don't see any other rappers wearing them. They need to give me an endorsement deal."
Without knowing the contents of their shoe racks, it's safe to say the Chattanooga, Tennessee, native is the lone Birkenstocked member of TDE, the already legendary Carson imprint best known for the Black Hippy crew (Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock). Rashad's decision to splurge on some Jordan 11s — price tag roughly $300 — symbolizes the need for both modest celebration and sigh of relief.
His sophomore TDE project, last month's understatedly brilliant The Sun's Tirade, received almost unanimous critical adulation, debuting at No. 19 on the Billboard charts and selling 19,000 units in its first week, more than twice as many as 2014's Cilvia Demo, which Rashad considers a glorified EP. The raves and statistics are nice — tangible evidence of artistic and commercial growth, proof that he'll be around next year and the year after. But in conversation, you sense the residual weariness that led Rashad to this point. Part of the reward is that the record even came out at all.
Sometime last year, Rashad nearly got dropped from TDE, a potentially career-killing close call tacitly alluded to on the album's opening skit, "Where U At."
"Did I actually think I was going to get dropped? No." Rashad pauses for a second, deliberating the repeated warnings given by label boss Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith. "Did he seriously mean it when he said it? Maybe. Either way, I wasn't about to try to test whether it was for real or not."
It's reasonably safe to say that the threats weren't idle. After the release of Cilvia Demo, Rashad, 25, returned to his adopted home of L.A. and moved from the TDE compound in Carson to an apartment in Paramount. The idea was to provide a West Coast home for his ex-girlfriend and son, but those plans quickly foundered; he soon was bored, isolated and struggling to find creative inspiration. Bouts of depression soon followed, which eventually led to an alcohol and Xanax addiction destructive enough to tear the lining of his stomach.
"The first thing I did every morning was write raps, and I got into the habit of thinking that I wrote better drunk, and that ended up driving me crazy," Rashad says. "If I didn't impress myself, it felt like I hadn't achieved anything, and my day would be ruined. I'd procrastinate and procrastinate and think about what I wanted to write about instead of actually writing. And then I'd drink some more or pop a pill."
If rap stars often gravitate toward extremes, Rashad sought to find the rarefied middle ground. You're usually a cold-blooded pimp or a star-crossed Romeo, flashy baller or humble Everyman. If you can't be described in a one-sentence elevator pitch, mainstream success often remains elusive.
This is part of what makes Rashad so singular: his stubborn refusal to pick a side, or even a topic. His wisdom, arrogance, stresses, anxieties, laments and confessions leak out in slickly worded couplets, asides delivered in slippery, elastic cadence. ("I mix that Boosie with that boom-bap"; "I've been depressed, I hit wall, ouch"; "I got a face only your bitch could love.")
One of the most powerful moments comes on "Rope." In a ravaged, distorted croon, Rashad sings about his father, a former crack addict, calling him in tears about not being there for his children.
"He's still calling my phone drunk, crying," Rashad mumbles, picking up his phone to show the missed calls. He's careful not to complain about anything, acutely aware of how easy it is to capitalize on these personal struggles to turn them into saleable melodrama.
Throughout The Sun's Tirade, TDE president Dave Free operates as a Greek chorus or conscience, begging Rashad to "pick a topic," wondering how someone could talk about all this "crazy life shit" despite being born in 1991.
"It's powerful for people his age to hear someone talking about mental health issues," Free says. "They're experimenting with drugs, dealing with emotional stresses, racism, social media pressures and suicidal tendencies. Even the way he speaks about his father — about how he wasn't there, but he still forgives him. He's showing them there's a brighter tomorrow. Kids that have been through a lot of shit and don't have anyone to talk to ... they talk to that album."
The biographical details of Rashad, or "Zay," as everyone calls him, lend themselves to middle-class relatability. He flipped burgers with white stoner kids who put him up on the Juno soundtrack but rapped with friends now serving 10-to-20 sentences in the state penitentiary. He's a college dropout who wound up working at Hardee's, sending demos to blogs until Top Dawg discovered his music via former Interscope A&R Tunji Balogun.
"Honestly, Top saved me from being a number," is how Rashad sums it up.
His absentee father struggled with debilitating substance abuse, but his mother opened up a successful hair salon and owns a three-bedroom house, where he temporarily retreated last year after Tiffith sent him home to regroup. His background adds up to a blend of swagger, neuroses and Southern bounce that's allowed him to shed the Kendrick Lamar comparisons that first dogged him upon arrival.
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"Maybe it's that I'm from a small town that makes me obsessed with memories of small moments from my past," Rashad admits, taking a break to smoke a Newport.
It's caused him to end up somewhere between Larry David and The Pharcyde's Labcabincalifornia, the midway point between the blistering stress raps of Organized Noize and the slow-rolling funk of Organized Konfusion. He's obsessed with the Coen brothers and cites Erykah Badu as his ideal career analog. You can see a little of both Mookie and Buggin' Out in him — or to use the more contemporary analogy from Atlanta, he's half Paper Boi, half Donald Glover's "Earn" character. The Birkenstocked hippie and Jordan-clad cool, combined into one.
Sometime in the last two years, skinny, cerebral, small-town kid Isaiah Rashad McClain became the nomadic Isaiah Rashad, fully formed rapper, writer and father.
"The middle story never really gets told," Rashad says. "I have to rap real good because I got no hook. I don't gangbang. I don't dye my hair. I'm not good at skating or sports. I mumble. I'm good at talking but don't have anything to talk about except myself. I don't really give a fuck about politics. I'm not trying to be preachy. Maybe it sucks that I don't have a hook, but really, it's tight, as long as I figure out how to make it work."