An Ode to Isaiah Rashad: Five Years of 'Cilvia Demo'

Five years on, 'Cilvia Demo' still feels like a winding journey of self-discovery.
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In an era cluttered with cookie-cutter raps and personas, a higher premium is placed on originality. Once in a blue moon, a new artist emerges that doesn’t sound remotely like anybody else. And on January 28, five years ago, a rapper named Isaiah Rashad released Cilvia Demo, his first project on Top Dawg Entertainment.

In the video for "Shot You Down," a single released a few months before Cilvia, amidst some sweeping shots of a Chattanooga, TN housing project, a game of dominoes, and tall cans of Olde English malt liquor, Rashad raps surrounded by friends and family: “I take a drag of the square, I feel anxious, spit dangerous / As the verbal appears, it’s reflecting my perspective / Beer goggle and fear, role model so hollow...” Although he may have came, saw, and conquered in the anthemic chants of the record's hook, there’s a palpable sense of frustration behind his aggressive delivery. 

In a 2014 interview with Complex, Rashad spoke about his frame of mind while writing “Shot You Down”: 

“I had a pack of cigarettes so I sat outside, wrote some raps, and I was mad. I wasn’t mad at anything in particular. I just be upset a lot. I be irritated. I hate feeling like I’m stuck in one place, like I’m chained down or something. That’s a pet peeve of mine, feeling like some shit ain't going somewhere. It make me want to quit shit. Patience is not my strong point.”

Rashad's commentary in his Complex interview permeates all of Cilvia Demo. In the first two bars of opening song "Hereditary," he admits that “My daddy taught me how to drink my pain away / My daddy taught me how to leave somebody,” and he offers bits and pieces like “Came back with a bitch and his stepson / I guess he forgot that he left something” on "Banana." While he may not have had a father figure to look up to, Rashad was able to fill this gaping void with music.

The tracklist for the debut extended play is littered with nominal tributes to the Southern hip-hop luminaries who soundtracked Rashad's formative years: “Webbie Flow” (the Baton Rouge rapper associated with Lil Boosie), “R.I.P. Kevin Miller" (Master P’s slain brother, who was robbed and killed in ‘95), “West Savannah” (a song from OutKast’s Aquemini), and “Brad Jordan” (the legal name of Scarface).

From beginning to end, it's all there: the urgency and hunger in his delivery, the Southern bounce in his cadence, and the soulful production. It's not easy to find that pocket at such an early stage of a career, but Zay made it seem effortless. And although his lyrical content, at times, comes across as scattershot, that alone isn't an indictment of the project. Cilvia Demo is a body of a work created by a young man in his early 20s, still in the process of finding himself. Perfection wasn't expected—this was, after all, a demo.

Isaiah Rashad once told The FADER that “the place [he] wanted to go to, it don’t exist on a map,” and that’s what Cilvia Demo often feels like: a journey of self-discovery with no particular destination in mind. Even the cover has five other alternative titles crudely crossed out, but the one Rashad chose feels appropriate: Cilvia was the name of his ‘95 Honda Civic. You can almost picture him riding along the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, searching for solace in the Southern classics bumping through his stereo while working dead-end retail jobs and flipping burgers at Hardee’s.

He grapples with these feelings of dissonance on songs like “Heavenly Father” (“If I give my story to the world, I wonder if they’d book me for a show”), even going as far as revealing that he used to cut himself. On “Ronnie Drake,” featuring SZA, Rashad exudes a modest confidence: “I’m a king, O.E. be slipping, falling from my chalice / Don’t mind the bumpers that was missing from my carriage / It’s poorly tinted, but my women not embarrassed.” Throughout the album, he constantly slips in and out of this powerful dichotomy between strength and struggle as he weaves poignant narratives rooted in internal conflict.

As he raps on “Shot You Down,” Isaiah Rashad understands that if you “get caught up in the hype, your career’s for a night,” and he avoided that fate by humanizing himself with honest and reflective lyricism—although it was a bit rough around the edges, Cilvia Demo is a visceral display of raw, promising talent, and a much-needed breath of fresh air.

And then there was a deafening silence.

For the next two years, fans heard virtually nothing from Isaiah Rashad. He later revealed on the Juan Epstein podcast that he developed a Xanax and alcohol addiction while touring with ScHoolboy Q for Oxymoron. He landed in the hospital after tearing his stomach lining, and almost got dropped from TDE on multiple occasions; Top Dawg had to send Isaiah back home until he got his shit together. We’re blessed that he did.

If Isaiah Rashad was soul-searching on Cilvia, he found himself a few steps closer—both as a man and an artist—on his formal debut The Sun’s Tirade. His trials and tribulations coalesced into a refined coming-of-age album that chronicles his struggles with mental health and substance abuse. Rashad unapologetically embraced his demons and shortcomings, and in a culture that's always championed machismo and bravado, that decision was applause-worthy.  

In the five years since Cilvia hit our headphones, Isaiah Rashad has carved out a singular lane for himself on a record label boasting some of the most talented artists of our generation—and he’s comfortable and confident in that position. No agenda, no gimmicks, and no pandering. Just music in its purest form.

I’ve been paying close attention to Isaiah Rashad since Cilvia Demo dropped in 2014. His music—his story—makes fans feel like they have a personal stake in his journey. It’s been 878 days since Isaiah Rashad released The Sun’s Tirade, but who’s counting? About two weeks ago, he dropped a teaser freestyle—literally about not getting the album. In the meantime, I'll have Cilvia Demo on repeat until he drops his next masterpiece.

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