Hip-Hop

Isaiah Rashad Is Finally Ready to Live Up to His Potential and Make Top Dawg Proud

Isaiah Rashad
Courtesy of Top Dawg Ent

Isaiah Rashad

TDE's Isaiah Rashad knows he tends to go ghost on the music industry. If you ask him, it's not intentional.

Before we start our chat, he cheekily jokes about our last interview five years ago for his previous project, The Sun's Tirade. With one hand on the steering wheel, he succinctly offers his explanation for his half-decade hiatus during our Zoom call, saying, "Hey, s--t happens." 

The s--t that almost drowned Rashad's burgeoning career was substance abuse and a typhoon of doubts that he couldn't handle as a rising twenty-something in the rap game. Despite being touted as TDE's "secret weapon," Rashad's mishandling of his vices almost led to him getting dropped from the label not once but twice. Though Top Dawg's CEO and founder Anthony Tiffith often used tough love to reawaken Rashad's hunger, his biggest stumble -- a trip to rehab -- nearly destroyed the stoic general. 

"If anything, I might have made that n---a a little soft," recalls Rashad about his relationship with Top. "I went through more in these five years than I did last time. After Sun's Tirade, I was telling that story [about my addiction], but it wasn't like I had s--t behind me. [My manager] Matt checked me into rehab, and we got all that s--t out the way. Top was damn near about to cry through the s--t."

He adds, "I had a dad that I ain't never had in my life. I got love that I been looking for from n---as that if you was coming from any other place, you'd think they want you for money, but I know if all else fails and I don't want to rap anymore, I'll f--k around and just work at the office. Them n---as love me, and they love us."

With a renewed sense and appreciation for life and his career, the newly-turned 30-year-old is on a mission to make his team proud. His forthcoming album The House Is Burning finds Rashad in a different element. Slated for a June release, he recorded every track sober -- a first in his career. Instead of shying away from his imperfections, he embraces every flaw candidly and without hesitation.

His project's first release, "Lay Wit Ya," is vintage Rashad, as he delivers a commanding performance alongside his Memphis cohort Duke Deuce. Besides linking up with Smino and 6LACK on his upcoming album, he also teases a possible reunion with SZA, his TDE compatriot.

This time around, Rashad also gives a s--t about being critically acclaimed -- and about doing numbers. "I owe this n---a, Top. I been riding in a Honda for years. I owe this n---a," Rashad relays. "He didn't sign me to be like an underground n---a, he signed me because he thought I was a superstar. I gotta at least try for him and them. If they got a billion dollars out here for Black men, I'd be dumb to settle for my expectations that people think I'm humble. The challenge is getting a Rollie and not being big on yourself. I'm up for that challenge."

Billboard spoke to Isaiah Rashad about his five-year layoff, rediscovering himself, turning 30, overcoming addiction, and more. 

I remember you told me Clivia's Demo was like your version of Fargo, and The Sun's Tirade was like No Country for Old Men. We're approaching the third project. I'm wondering what you're bringing us with this time around. 

If you a film buff, this might be my The Hateful Eight or it's my Blade Runner. This might be the time I use my imagination and put my feelings behind it. That gives them a reason to go back. None of these people be film buffs. This motherf--ker feel big, but it still feel like I'm doing my s--t. 

I got a little four-pack as a preview. 

I know what they sent you, too. Them probably the worst songs on the album, but they probably just the best singles. The other ones are like The Sun's Tirade on the back-end -- real artistic s--t. I really tried to get n--as I really wanted on this s--t. I didn't do everything by myself.

You said a couple of months ago that you weren't gonna put the project out if [Young Dolph] wasn't on there. 

On the real, we got time for this Deluxe, and I'm still gonna f--k around and get this Dolph [feature]. 

What do you appreciate most about the rise of the Tennessee scene? Because it wasn't blowing up this crazy when you first dropped. 

Crazy! I look at it on multiple sides, because I'm always a fan first. I recognized what kind of music I make. I know that I wasn't making commercial-based music so I was always waiting as a fan for n---as out here slinging hits like [Three 6 Mafia] and them used to do.

Memphis got the whole s--t on lock. I saw [Moneybagg Yo] got the No. 1 album in the country. You got Dolph, Bagg, [Key Glock] -- Glock my favorite. How Gotti doing s--t signing n---as and he got 42 Dugg on top of all that s--t. Only thing that sucks about that s--t is I don't even know them n---as. I just hope at one point in time I get to meet them n---as and chop it up and break bread because that's some inspirational s--t. 

Knowing that you've been out of the game these last five years, did you take the Lil Wayne approach where you don't listen to anybody so you can focus on yourself? 

I listen to everybody. I been banging that Slime Language 2. I listened to Slime Language 2, to Norma Tanega "Treat Me Right" today. I listen to folk music and everything so I'm always tapped in. The last five years, all I've been trying to do is take the criticism from my peers within the camp because all they want to do is see me do good. I'm trying to take the same artistic approach I could take, and take it big enough for someone who was into the same s--t I was into growing up.

My favorite song was "Hurt Me Soul" from Lupe Fiasco, and that ain't finna be on the radio. So he did that, but he still did "Superstar." I was trying to do my best to live up to that s--t. If the extreme was Lupe and Kanye [West], I was trying to give a little more of this side that Talib [Kweli] would bang, or Q-Tip would appreciate. 

Now you are officially part of the washed community, since you’re 30. 

I ain't washed, baby! I don't even believe in that. Hov is so ahead of his time. 30 is really the new 20. I feel like I just got all the bulls--t behind me from being a kid, that I might be a man now. 

What does that number mean to you?

I was scared until I got here. I was like, "Damn, I hope it ain't over. I hope I don't have to do stuff” -- versus stuff that I've purposely put myself behind the wheel to. I was hoping at 30 I was doing something for someone that I didn't want to do. At 30, I just hoped I ain't gotta do anything except fulfill my promises. That's all I'm at right now. I don't have any responsibility to nobody but myself, and now I can give myself to the people that I want to. 

When TDE teased fans about that May 7th drop, people speculated that it was either Kendrick, SZA or you. For supporters to still rock with you after not dropping consistent music in years, that says a lot. 

You telling me! I'm over here amped. I feel real privileged for a n---a that's got two projects. That's why this one had to live up to the expectations and on the Kobe bag, I had to live up to the challenge to myself.

On paper, I'm like, "Why am I critically acclaimed?" I'm like, "I don't deserve that s--t." Maybe I could make something that will exceed all of the homegrown fans' expectations. Maybe I could give them the pleasure of next time, they'll play a new album from me and play it for a new friend that never gave me a chance, and they'll be like, "I told you."

I ain't got no stress on me, baby, so I shouldn't take another four [years]. Should only take me a couple of months type of s--t the way that I'm moving.

Back then, being critically-acclaimed didn't mean s--t to you. Do you still believe in that?

Nah, I got to [now]. I gotta make sure I stick to my principles on top of adding new ones. I gotta stick to wanting to say something and wanting to give people vulnerable pieces of myself and be OK with that and not trip on that. If n---as gonna stick around and help me around with all the streaming, pay my bills, n---as help me keep money in my pocket and have me looking good, then I gotta continue giving them parts of me on top of the new s--t and having bread in my pocket. I gotta make sure for every new fan I get, that I'm still hitting my bills from back in my SoundCloud days. I'm still making myself cry sometimes. 

That's what I'm most proud of about this project -- the only compromise was to get bigger. The compromise was to get bigger, and to accept I may have the potential to. I don't feel like I'm arrogant when I'm telling myself like, "You could be a star." It's like, "Boy, sit down." These n---as been telling me that for five years, and I owe them the favor of doing that.

When did you realize that Top really loved and cared about you? 

When I didn't have no money coming in and I was like, "This n---a is paying my rent and I haven't made a song in months.” He locked me in his house and said, "We gonna get through this s--t." I gained some confidence and betrayed his confidence f--king up in the streets. When I came to him humble and I needed help, he still gave me the help. He's a solid n---a, man. I ain't never seen a n---a happier to hand a n---a a $1 million check. That n---a happier than I am, doing skips down the steps. He loves me, man.

I saw you tweeted about all the records being done sober. How would you say recording this time around was different than your previous projects?

It challenged my confidence because I had to rely on myself. At first, it was hard, but once I had some sessions with Kenny Beats, he taught me some of the methods that he used with Keys and what he seen Young Thug do and how they get comfortable to say whatever's on their mind. Then I worked with my n---a Kal Banx, and he's on a good majority on the project -- and my homie Henry that my manager put me on to. They gave me the space and time to practice that s--t.

I know how to write on paper and formulate. So doing that and getting the creative outlet, and expressing myself without having to sit down, made this motherf--ker the most fun project.

There was a moment where you said you shed a tear while creating the album. What record did that for you on this project?

There's this track "Donuts" that I think that's gonna be on the Deluxe. That reminds me of riding around the back. The outro "HBCU Happy Birthday to You" reminds me of Thanksgiving. The s--t with me and Smino. 

I hope you don't wait another five to seven years to drop again.

You might have to wait another three or four [years] for something. All these have been basically summaries of whatever time in my life. You ain't gonna get a summary of my life in six to eight months, but you might get a project for the fun of it. We might try some s--t and get some features and might do a mixtape with style, like the Slime Language s--t, with my homies and drop it. You probably won't get me rounding up my feels, that s--t might take three years.

If you could pick one word to title this chapter in your life, what word would that be and why?

Grateful. It's the only thing keeping me to the ground. On God, I'm embracing it. I'm ready to f--k s--t up, baby.

A version of this article originally appeared in the May 15, 2021, issue of Billboard.