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Last Year Isaiah Rashad Worked at Hardee's; Now He's Rap's Next Big Thing

Isaiah RashadEXPAND
Isaiah Rashad
Christopher Parsons

[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]

Sometimes the top of the world is a ratty sofa in Carson. That's where Isaiah Rashad reclines on the last Thursday of January, sipping a grape soda, scarfing Honeybuns and idly glancing at a muted rerun of Gilligan's Island.

Rashad awoke to discover his debut, Cilvia Demo, at No. 2 on the iTunes rap charts and No. 8 overall. Beyond that, there's still a residual high from hearing an audience rap his own words back to him for the first time. That happened the previous Sunday at the Grammy party for his label, Top Dawg Entertainment, where Rashad performed onstage with labelmates Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q.

So how did he celebrate? Champagne toasts? Gentleman's club rainmaking? Perhaps an eBay splurge to acquire rare Gilligan's Island memorabilia?

"I went to Korean BBQ and fell asleep at the table," Rashad, 22, says with a laugh, crumbling buds for his third blunt of the day. He's rocking a black and white hoodie, designer sweatpants and spiked curly hair like a young Shawn Wayans. "I was off the Henny. We tried to get turned up, but I hadn't slept much until it came out."

To contextualize the velocity of the Chattanooga-raised rapper's rise, one year ago he was ready to quit Hardee's to become an electrician's apprentice. Before that, he'd played a few Nashville shows, barnstormed on the Southern leg of a tour with Ab-Soul and Joey Badass, and earned mild blog buzz from several promising songs released on SoundCloud.

Music wasn't paying the bills. He had a son on the way. Just as he was about to acquiesce to his mother's pleas to learn voltage fundamentals, L.A. A&R reps started hollering.

The flight to the West Coast to meet with Atlantic Records was the first time he stepped on a plane. During Rashad's sojourn, Top Dawg executive Dave Free invited him to record at the label's Carson headquarters.

The session yielded "I Shot You Down," a haunting anthem somewhere between the sleek rifle spirituality of Johnny Cash and the Southern bounce of Cash Money. Upon hearing it, TDE founder Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith tendered Rashad a contract to become the label's first non-L.A. native signee.

"It's crazy how fast it happened, and I'm always trying to put the puzzle pieces together," Rashad says, biopic The TLC now playing on the flat-screen. "What led to this? Who did I listen to to help me get to this point? What did I learn and how can I learn more?"

Work commenced on Cilvia in April, after he moved to the label's Carson headquarters. Following a brief spell of writer's block, Rashad found his West Coast swing. The best debut since Chance the Rapper's, Cilvia is hyper-melodic without straining. It's intelligent, political, jazzy and soulful without flag-waving or pretension.

Rashad has a rare gift for condensing four centuries into two sentences, crystallizing the struggle on "Ronnie Drake": "Came a long way from a boat and an auction/now we got names and a vote, then a coffin."

 

"Modest" might be the only song ever written to shout out both Lil Boosie and Larry David. Those might be Rashad's temperamental bookends: He has the "I don't give a fuck" rawness of the former and the endearing neuroses of the latter.

The combination makes him more than the next star in the Top Dawg pipeline. Rashad's an original voice and incisive observer, and he has that million-dollar bounce. That's why, a day after we speak, people queue for blocks downtown just to get Cilvia signed and pose for photos.

"As soon as you get out of elementary school, it goes from, 'You can be whatever you want to be,' to, 'You can be whatever you want, provided you follow these rules,'?" Rashad says. "They dim your light a little bit. There are no do-overs.

"This is some crazy stuff. I could've been stuck in Tennessee studying algebra; now I'm finna go to Paris this year."

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