A splash of modern rap combined with vintage sounds and styles has proven to be a reliably successful, although difficult to execute, strategy in hip-hop, a genre deeply rooted in nostalgia. Mix an old automobile (say, a 1993 Civic) with that new-car smell, and you’ll still have a fresh ride.
On his new project, the Cilvia Demo, TDE-signee Isaiah Rashad rides that line between modern allure and ancient melody finding a middle ground, one that evokes a lofty remembrance of simpler times where reality existed outside of the confines of a computer screen. Life is real.
That reality is told within the margins of the young talent’s rhyme-book. Born and raised in Chattanooga, Rashad’s geographical origins subtly define Cilvia—the introspective artist’s proper debut project via Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE). Like the serpent-shaped bends of the nearby Tennessee River or the gleaming surfaces of Harrison Bay, Cilvia is a work of reverb-doused fluidity that finds him living and reflecting on the winding paths that took him to where he is today.
"Shot You Down," undoubtedly the most widely-known record on the project, one of 2013’s finest singles and Cilvia’s closer, floats like a leaf on a forest stream with its watery, EQ’d sample. Rashad rides the ripples naturally and projects a confident charisma complimented by subtly southern pronunciation. Label-mates ScHoolboy Q and Jay Rock make this song a star-aligning moment. Less pronounced, but with a similar effect, are the underlying samples and echoey landscape of "Webbie Flow (U Like)," a track that calls for the removal of “turn up” from our collective vocabulary before paying homage to Phife Dawg.
A well-produced, collective backdrop is the foundation of Cilvia’s creative world, but it is Rashad’s poetically penned, energetically delivered raps that gently tip the scale towards a point of well-rounded balance. Whether calmly contextualizing the usage of “n*gga” alongside SZA on "Ronnie Drake," a song that expresses love for people from all walks of life much like Kendrick Lamar’s "Fuck Your Ethnicity" did. Or when he's showcasing a stutter-stop, aggressive flow on "Modest," his words strike dead-center through the cloud of beats that give this album its unity.
Emotion is distorted on this record; everything has a sense of fondness to it, even when the recalled moments are bittersweet, even when the memories are conflicted: “Came a long way from a boat and an auction / Now we got names and a vote, then coffin / Ain’t shit change but the coast we adopted”, raps Rashad on "Ronnie Drake."
But the mood of the record suddenly shifts when the desolate quiet of "Ronnie Drake" gives way to "West Savannah," a surprising, SZA-backed effort packed with enough rap-melody to warrant a Kid Cudi comparison. The attempt is successful, and signifies a heightened glass ceiling for Isaiah; he’s capable of walking the thin line between “hip-hop purist” and “mainstream act” by delivering an enjoyable mixture of both aesthetics.
“If I die today... / Then my legacy is straight”, says the 21-year-old on "R.I.P. Kevin Miller." He has accomplished more than most in the several years that both preceded and led to a signing with rap’s most talented indie label, but make no mistake, Rashad’s journey has just begun. Questions of longevity, of the likelihood that this young talent can compete at a higher level with his labelmates, will linger long after the masses digest Cilvia Demo. However, in a world where first impressions are everything, TDE’s future weapon has put his best foot forward. Now, we all get to wait and see how handsomely his efforts will be rewarded.