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Tennessee Rapper Isaiah Rashad Proves Himself Worthy of Black Hippy on ‘Cilvia Demo’

Isaiah Rashad / Photo by Roger Kisby/Getty Images
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: January 28, 2014
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment

The natural rapport that exists between Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock (collectively known as Black Hippy) is a sore thumb of sincerity within the cynical mainstream. See, most rap crews these days are pretty much just tiny corporate conglomerates, and when Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group or Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music scoop up a new artist, it feels like they’re franchising — extending their reach to another region they’re hoping to wrap their brand around. Consequently, when a posse cut appears, it’s just a handful of jerks who weren’t in the same room together lobbing rhymes right past one another.

Whereas the Black Hippy guys actually seem to enjoy each other’s company, so when they rap together, it’s an organic event that oozes both sheer skill and actual enthusiasm. But that rapport makes the recent addition of Chattanooga, Tennessee’s Isaiah Rashad to this Southern California crew potentially threatening: Would he merely be their token Southern spitter? Thankfully, no: Rashad’s booming appearance in last fall’s BET Awards cypher showed that he wasn’t a perfunctory or cynically region-savvy addition. And now comes Cilvia Demo, a confident and assured debut proving that home address aside, he fits squarely into the Black Hippy aesthetic.

Cilvia Demo plays out like somebody slowly emerging from a depressive funk (or a cloud of weed smoke) and figuring his shit out, the first six tracks of Black Moon-by-way-of-OutKast acrobatics (see the breezy, shit-kicking title track or the angular jazz-rap workout “Ronnie Drake”) giving way to cogent confessions from a pissed-off, conflicted young man with a nagging desire to do better. “Soliloquy” is the turning point, a quick, clear-eyed declaration of machismo that recalls Nas’ “New York State of Mind”; giving such an off-the-cuff, freestyle-feeling track such a Shakespearean title alone speaks to Rashad’s cozy ambitions.

As the album progresses, clever punch lines give way to epiphanies. Consider this bitter observation from “Banana”: “Can’t go back to selling no retail / My daddy left me with no details / Came back with a bitch and a stepson / I guess he forgot that he left some.” The weighty issue of suicide appears quite a few times, most notably on “Heavenly Father”; Rashad’s struggles with women, weed, and booze never scan as humblebrags masquerading as laments, as is often the case with young, conflicted MC’s.

Sonically, Cilvia Demo makes flexible adjustments to traditional sounds: Think boom-bap dipped in lean, or country-rap tunes floating in space. Tracks shout out Southern heroes like Webbie, Master P, OutKast, and Scarface, proving Rashad isn’t allergic to the influences of his own region — compare that with, say, J. Cole, straight out of Fayetteville, North Carolina, but firmly deriving his skills from above the Mason-Dixon line. But Rashad isn’t too mired in regionalism, either, which has proven to be the problem with struggling rappers like Big K.R.I.T, embattled fellows fueled by a contrived sense of holding an entire city or lifestyle on their backs. This guy is simply focused on keeping his head above water, which only makes him more relatable to everyone.

Even the closing track — “Shot You Down (Remix),” a seven-minute shit-talker and soon-to-be mix-show hit featuring Jay Rock and ScHoolboy Q — is ultimately heartening. The hook, catchy like classic 50 Cent or Eminem, merges the killing-the-game rhetoric of street rap with the killing-you-dead rhetoric of the streets: “I came, I saw, I conquered / I shot you down / Now your brain don’t have no conscious, what you do now?” It speaks to Black Hippy’s acknowledgment of the weighty consequences surrounding the stuff they rap about, even when they’re just trying to gas each other up.