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Isaiah Rashad, J. Cole & the Art of the Slow-Burning Album

Albums with stories attached, those are the ones that stay with us the longest.
Isaiah Rashad 'The Sun's Tirade' J Cole '4 Your Eyez Only'

Everyone wants to fall in love immediately.

Whether it’s with a person, an album, or a novel, we want to fall in love and stay in love for as long as possible. We want each time to be just like the first time—we lust after the wide-eyed feeling of discovery and are enamored by the promise of closeness. If these feelings don’t wash over us instantly—the first date, the first track, the first chapter—a sense of despondency will inevitably tinge the relationship thereafter. 

But it doesn’t have to be this dire.

Slow-burning records, those that hint at their potential and unfurl over time, have all the magic of those instant moments. Better yet, these albums endure. A slow burn bats against the constant burnout we must grapple with in the oversaturated, on-demand music era. Slow-burning albums like Isaiah Rashad’s The Sun’s Tirade and J. Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only worm their way into every nook of our day-to-day lives until we're consumed by the music.

These albums provide a different depth of connection and discovery. There’s a potent magic to these records that tap you on the shoulder and tempt you down their myopic rabbit holes. As you explore the references, read the interviews, allow the music to move from the background to the foreground, suddenly you’re sharing your life with a piece of music as you would a steady girlfriend who ever so slowly moves in, one skincare product at a time. Once you’re caught in the blaze of that slow burn, the heat normalizes to a comfortable warmth and that album—or that girlfriend—comes to hold a permanent place in your life.

Released in September 2016, The Sun’s Tirade brings with it the oppressive and attractive heat of early August. Zay’s languid and desperate verses wind across 17 tracks packed with opulence, yearning, and recovery. These verses wafted through snowed-in basements, where whiskey spilled on the old treadmill that served as our makeshift bar. Backed by Zacari’s ghostly warbles, we confessed our deepest insecurities between drinks and handfuls of almonds to temper the intoxication.

But on the first pass of the album, I didn’t fall in love. There was a cavernous feeling to the album, and a wisp of energy calling me to explore, but no immediate hook, no teeth sunk. Upon first glance, The Sun’s Tirade played off as low stakes and mostly unscathing—but there were embers. September turned to January, and the record began to feel appropriately weighty.

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Over what would become a five-month touch-and-go relationship with the album, its magic bubbled over as the music permeated the most ordinary notches in my day. “4r Da Squaw” played like the first good stretch after you wake, and sounded all the more luxurious when competing with the wail of the coffee pot. The patter of “Free Lunch” was all the more playful when paired with the pop of eggs frying. A Sunday morning hangover was only cured once “Stuck in the Mud” slinked out of the speakers.

Along the way, I read every Isaiah Rashad interview I could find, connecting with his underdog story, his battle with addiction and depression, and his views on music and therapy. Subsequent listens pulled me deeper into the mythos of the album, and better yet, into the ethos of the man behind the record. While the record sounds like a long day in the sun, every niche of the album finally came together seven months later in the dead of winter 2017.

This timeline is proof that The Sun’s Tirade is an enduring body of work; one able to expand beyond its sonic setting and give listeners a prolonged sense of place, feeding our need for stability and security. Growing into the album and allowing it to consume me elevated the record to a personal classic, carving out and occupying a space in my heart that would not have been there had I been able to slide into the thick of the music from the first listen.

J. Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only follows a similar trajectory. From the first listen, I could tell the stars had aligned for Cole in terms of production, maturity, writing, and subject matter. The album was sticky and far from unctuous, with an inviting warmth—all the right ingredients for sonic quicksand. My relationship with 4YEO could be described as a series of missed connections from December 2016 to Cole’s headlining show at Barclays Center in August 2017, wherein his everyman sensibility gave the album the life I was struggling to excavate out of it.

From last August to just last week, I made it my mission to put the record through its paces. One night of magic at a live show was the final spark to get the album on my daily radar. Sometimes you need a friendly nudge forward, and where I once thought Cole was too reserved, it became obvious I was the one with cold feet. As I warmed to the album, it revealed itself to me the way heat-sensitive mugs populate with kitschy sayings, except nothing on 4YEO—yes, not even wanting to fold clothes and drink almond milk—was trite.

4 Your Eyez Only became a tour of the psyche of a weather-worn man, one part J. Cole, one part universal life experience. Initially hooked by the lilt and charisma of “Neighbors,” I’m now most attached to the thinning high notes of “Ville Mentality.” The layers of vulnerability on the record unraveled and rose up with a fresh warmth, like fresh bread. Everybody loves fresh bread; I now love 4 Your Eyez Only.

Everyone loves to ask happy couples, “So, how did you meet?” and that principle extends to music. Albums with stories attached, those are the ones that stay with us the longest. When you consider each curious listen as a page in the intangible scrapbook you craft with the record, the slow-burning album always begets the most meaningful memories.

And like someone, somewhere, at least once, must have said: Mo’ memories, mo’ better. 


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