The September 2, 2016 release of Isaiah Rashad’s The Sun’s Tirade never felt quite right. In terms of timing up the mood of the music with the spirit of the environment upon release, Zay’s viscous sophomore Top Dawg Entertainment release always felt like a height of summer listen, not meant to be played as the cool of fall settles in. The Sun’s Tirade feels like a profoundly contemplative listen, like the sun itself beaming down and splitting us open so we can better face ourselves.
“My lyrics are like a beautiful accident all the time,” Rashad told Complex in 2016. “When something sounds cool, it’s like a wonderful coincidence.” He really should give himself more credit. The Sun’s Tirade is packed with vivid imagery and milky textures. The album is hot concrete on our feet, causing us to do that skipping dance into the shade, where we’ll inevitably miss the warmth. I missed the warmth when The Sun’s Tirade initially released, but what I did not miss was Isaiah Rashad’s ability to be self-effacing in the heat of it all.
Back in 2016, for NPR, Kiana Fitzgerald wrote: “The Sun’s Tirade is Isaiah Rashad’s chance to admit he almost got lost in the sauce these past few years, almost tripped unnecessarily over his own problems. Listening now, it sounds like he’s not just ready to move past them: He’s ready to challenge himself, and the people who have been waiting for him.”
Four years later, Kiana is right on the money: The Sun’s Tirade is a comeback record from an artist willing to do the work of productive vulnerability. As the height of summer approaches, and as we look back on The Sun’s Tirade, I’d like to imagine each song as a vision of summer. From early mornings with the sunrise to late nights on the water, sea breeze running amuck through our hair, I’d like to imagine The Sun’s Tirade as the picture of summer sounds it was so destined to be. Enjoy.
“4r Da Squaw”
The ceiling fan whirls above your head, and you wonder if there’s a chance you’ll be able to go out tonight. Your desire is there, but the money… It’s so fucking hot, and the fan just blows the humidity back in your face. Your bedroom is soup, and the city is no better. You throw on “4r Da Squaw” and lose yourself in the swirl of the first verse: “I think I do this shit for real, dawg, hey / I ain’t no motherfucking maybe / I’m for motherfucking real, dawg, hey.” And you know what? You’re motherfucking real, too. You must be because the heat is making your skin itch, and the restlessness of another undecided summer night is making your heart race.
The lines “I think the sunshine / Should feel how I feel, how I feel, like, yeah / I think at night time / The moon should call my phone” stick out to you. You see a pale moon through your window, and the sun is still up, and it’s unrelenting. Maybe you will go out—meet someone exciting. Suck on a beer. Experience this life. Fiddling with your phone, you hum to yourself, “When I pay my bills, I’m good…” You’ll only have tonight for a few more hours; might as well make it a memory.
You’re watching the clock tick at your desk job. You hate your desk job. Any minute now, it’ll be the weekend—for now, you’re chained to a light wood desk with an egomaniac for a boss talking down your neck. The clicks and clanks of the office pervade your thoughts. Is there life beyond this? You remember “Free Lunch,” how Zay wants everyone to get what’s owed to them. You must be owed more than this.
“As far as the title, ‘Free Lunch,’ there are four numbers that I remember, which is the last four digits of my social,” you remember Rashad saying. “That’s because I had free lunch at school. Literally a free lunch, a real meal ticket.”
Suddenly, the petulant typing of the other office manager begins to sound like the “Free Lunch” beat. The sun beaming in through the blinds, the sweat on your brow, it becomes atmosphere. “Meal ticket, ticket, meal ticket, ticket, comma, ugh,” is the only thing you can parse between your boss’ demands and emails to clients. “Get your… Get your…” And then it’s five on the dot. The computer’s shut off. You’re outta there.
“Rope // rosegold”
You’re drunk in the basement again with a pack of old friends. It’s dark and musty—perfect. There are old couches with sweat stains from feverish nights spent piled up on the upholstery. Zay’s “Rope // rosegold” plays in the background as the piece gets passed around. “When I’m sober, I might testify / That this world has fallen out of place,” Zay warbles, and you’re certainly in no place to testify, either. You’re woozy and muddling through the night. It’s the best night of your life; until the next one.
“Thank God I found this rope…” What does he mean by that? God, is he going to hang himself? You haven’t thought about that fantasy in ages. Too dark, new thought. Maybe he’s found the rest of his rope, like that old saying. Whatever that means. Too weird, new thought. Perhaps the rope is a metaphor for making it. What’s making it mean?
Too slow, next part: “I got the music for the vibers / I got the music for the vibers, ugh / And we don’t usually talk about it, it’s / Like you debatin’ with a bible, mm.” Your turn to hit. Inhale. Hold it. Exhale. Pass. Feel better? Better. Man, Isaiah Rashad is the truth.
You’re driving down to the shore with the windows down, and that one friend who keeps saying Kendrick Lamar doesn’t feature well. You throw on “Wat’s Wrong” with a smirk on your face. It’s a gorgeous day, you’re secretly worried you’ll never have one like it again. You breathlessly try to keep up with Zay’s opening verse. He’s your favorite rapper right now. You’ve said this a million times at parties, in basements, during work, in the group chat. Everyone hears you, and they don’t disagree.
Kendrick’s part is here. You’re at a red, so you turn to your buddy. “See,” you say, “I told you Kendrick’s got it.” It feels silly, speaking up for people who have no idea who you are. The light turns green; you hit the gas. The shore is so close; you hope parking’s not a pain this time. You haven’t been to the beach since the breakup, which is why when Zay says, “Zay, say it ain’t love cause you bought flowers yesterday,” you feel a little twitch in your chest. Another red. Terrible luck. “Hey,” your buddy says. Back to green. You’ve got to park now. You’ve got to forget all about your past. The song’s over.
You’re dancing in your room all alone to Isaiah Rashad’s “Park.” You’ve got the track on repeat because the first few bars—“Mama, I knew I was ’bout it / Way before venue was crowded”—make you feel like you’re on top of the world. You haven’t had anything to celebrate in a while, besides the passing of time. Besides staying alive. That’s worthy, right? Sure. You’re jamming now, bumping into your nightstand, knocking over your cup of water. Don’t worry, it’s empty. Old cans of beer, books, and parking passes for the beach cover the floor. It’s summer, and you’re still alive. Rejoice.
The way Zay barks out the hook, you find yourself singing along with your whole chest. Hope the neighbors don’t mind the noise. Nothing can stop you from appreciating your every breath. “Bitch, I might shoot at your camera / Bitch, I might shoot at your…” you squeal in time with Zay. He sounds possessed, somewhere far away and better than here. You nearly slip on a can of IPA. You remember it tasting a little hoppy, a little grapefruity. The song starts up again. Sunlight waved by curtains dapples your walls. This is the best afternoon you’ve ever had.
Fireflies flit through the backyard. You hear Zay rap, “Me, I feel great today / I can’t help but just pour my drink,” as you steady yourself and head in for another hit from the communal wine bottle. You feel 15 again, forgoing glasses to share from the source. It doesn’t taste cheap. The string lights glow all around you. You can’t remember why you’re at this party, but the warmth of the wine suits you well enough. “Headed to the church or headed to the brothel / Pop my collar, really like Bieber / How do you tell the truth to a crowd of white people?” Zay asks, and the party slows down a bit. Things can get so heavy inside his wordplay, inside your head.
“Bday” is your favorite Isaiah Rashad song, at least off The Sun’s Tirade. You argue all the time about how underappreciated the song is in relation to the rest of the tracklist. Maybe you’ll pick a play fight tonight. Maybe not. It doesn’t seem like anyone has noticed you’re here, except to pass a bottle in your direction. Here comes the blunt, too. It’s all coming together. You’re here, and you’re not, and you fade into Zay’s words: “We was like forever, life is so confusing, fuck it / Take me, take me to revival / Maybe this’ll help me, maybe this’ll change my mind.” What’s forever when every night looks the same? Maybe Zay meant oblivion. Maybe not. Have another drink.
“Silkk Da Shocka”
“Now, this is a love song,” your buddy tells you. You’ve always been a sucker for an Isaiah Rashad love song. There’s something to the way he takes the simplest expressions of romance and makes them larger than life in his gravelly tone. The whole first verse of “Silkk Da Shocka” is a picture of your future, how badly you want to share your life with someone down to the weed in their blunt. Something about having someone take over your world in the positive ways sounds so different from everyone else you’ve ever dated. You wonder if it’ll ever happen for you, but you don’t dare tell your buddy so much.
“You are the start of my day / You brought the smile from my face… It’s rare, I know you love me.” You sing along to Syd’s whispery vocals. The song feels like breathing the freshest air after holding your breath for what seems like hours. “I fell in love with your thoughts / I learned it’s more than your hips,” you hear and empathize. You still have so much to learn about love. How do people fall in love and stay in love? It doesn’t seem like Zay knows, either. By the third verse, he’s lost the thread, and then it’s that Dave Free voicemail: “Complicated-ass young motherfuckers, man.” We sure are.
“Tity and Dolla”
You haven’t felt tough in a while, but when Zay says, “I don’t need no fuckin’ hug,” you stir and feel like yourself again. How long has it been since the breakup? Getting dumped in August feels brutal. The sun high in the sky, the beaches are packed from sunup to sundown, and every day feels like a chance to run into your ex. Better to stay home and play music, watching summer unfold outside your window. You love “Tity and Dolla,” love how Zay sounds so sure of himself. Each line a quotable unto itself: “Who is that n***a if I ain’t that n***a? … None of these n****s ain’t tellin’ me shit.” You’re so tired of advice like, “Just forget them!” As if you didn’t know to make the past the past.
Your favorite part of “Tity and Dolla” is when Zay sings, “I ran away” three times on the bridge. You’d love to run. You feel the impulse all the time: Forget your shoes and hit the hot pavement barefoot, and sprint until all your nervous energy sweats out. There’s something to the way Isaiah Rashad lets sentences trail off without finishing them on this song. There’s something to his impermanence. Sometimes, and you’d never tell anyone this, nothing feels really real. You touch your face. Everything is where it should be. You rest your head on your windowsill. You hope this summer never ends.
“Stuck in the Mud”
The sun bores into your closed eyes, leaving speckles behind your eyelids. You’re lying in fresh morning dew, unable to sleep. When’s the last time you had a full eight hours? Good sleep, good dreams. You’re resting on one arm, with your other combing over the wet grass. You love the cool bevels of water prickling up on your skin. You’ve never felt more rooted. When Isaiah Rashad and SZA sing of drug addiction on” Stuck in the Mud,” you think of yourself. You think of all your demons and the trappings of a good time. Too, you think of how nothing can touch you as the early morning fog slowly dissipates, and you swallow gulps of fresh air.
The best part of “Stuck in the Mud” is when Zay says: “We acting like we living right, um, big pimpin’.” The listener is supposed to believe in his confidence, but you know better, know he is struggling to get the words through his teeth. You think of the way the song dissolves by the close, like how life unravels into nothing. Like how life evaporates without asking. And for what? You don’t know. You think of how SZA makes “the reaper” sound heavenly. You wonder if this will be the last time you contemplate your mortality? It won’t. “Quote it.”
One of the best parts of summer is eating fast food in an empty parking lot with the windows down. You got your usual, and your buddies got their usuals, and you’re all sharing two of the biggest sodas you’ve ever seen. “A Lot” rips through the car stereo system. The trappy production betrays the old car speakers. Lows crackle, highs peak. In a chorus, with the best friends you’ll ever have, everyone chants, “Hangin’ just to smoke, boy you lame as a bitch.” They all scream “bitch” with their chests—everyone picturing someone different.
These nights feel like a rite of passage, mumbling over Zay’s mumbling while stuffing yourself with bacon cheeseburgers and dunking fries in honey mustard. Suddenly, everyone in the car erupts with chatter—three conversations at once. You can’t keep up. You’re somewhere else. “They for show, I’m for real / They for show, I’m for real,” Zay says. You look around and nod. Take a sip of soda. Let it tickle your tongue. You think about this line all the time, and what it means to be real when you can barely be yourself.
Lately, you’ve been fed up with yourself. You hate the word “lately,” too, how it implies everyone’s caught on to something, but you. Summer feels like the perfect time to be critical—there’s so little to hide behind. You’re having trouble parsing who you are from who your friends think you are, from who you really want to be. The realest bar Zay ever spit was on “AA”: “I can’t show you how to live.” He tucks it deep in the second verse, and it breaks your heart every time. You envy other people who have heroes. Zay can’t be your hero; he’s just a guy. You can’t be your hero; you’re still trying to figure out how to live.
But you love him anyway, Isaiah Rashad, for his hustle. “AA” is your favorite song because he packs so many bars about working hard and making it, then looking back on his life relieved. “AA” isn’t a come-up anthem, but it could be if you squint. For you, it’s a tale of triumph. If he can make it, you can make it, you think. Even when he ends the song “burnt out,” you think about all the ways Zay’s caught his own fire. Zay is the fire. What about you? Shit.
“Dressed Like Rappers”
“Dressed Like Rappers” made you cry once when you were stoned in your buddy’s backyard. He’s got a sliver of the city, and he keeps it open for you, no questions asked. Heat piles on and strips away in the nighttime. You two pass back and forth a joint while the song plays for the 10th time that night, and you shush your buddy mid-sentence. “I can admit, I’ve been depressed, I hit a wall, ouch,” goes Zay, and you need complete silence to take in the line. Aren’t you supposed to be happy in the summer? Why isn’t it working out for you?
You hang your head low, your buddy follows your gaze down to your shoes, then back up to the top of your head. They put a hand on your shoulder, and you ask for the joint. They let you know you’re actually holding it. Oh. “Ouch” rings in your head as you take a healthy drag. That’s the line of the album; you tell your buddy. That’s the line of a lifetime. Your buddy doesn’t disagree, passes you back the joint, stands up, and gets a drink from inside. A plane crosses overhead. So many people, you think, and how many of them are happy?
It’s your first date in a long time. You’re rightfully nervous. You throw on “Don’t Matter” to hype yourself up. You matched with this person a week ago, and they’re just incredible. Summer’s the best time to fall in love, you think. Summer’s the best time to traipse about holding hands, people watching, drinking shit coffee on rickety tables, and learning someone’s body language. “I’m on the road just to see if I can make it back,” Zay says, and you can’t help but think he’s singing about falling in love—giving yourself to someone just to see if they’ll give something back.
You’re due to meet your date in 20 minutes. When Isaiah flows with elegance, says, “I know the code to your body,” between bars about getting head, you wonder if you’ve ever carried yourself so effortlessly. Better put on a face, you think. Better make it seem that way. Dates are nerve-wracking because you need to make sure the person you’re with doesn’t discover who you are too quickly. You want to ease them into it. You don’t want to scare them off. Worst of all, you don’t want to be unloved. It’s been over 20 years of feeling unloved. Time for change.
You only go to family gatherings to catch up with your grandma. In the backyard of your parents’ modestly sized home, you watch your dad grill and your mom fret over things, and your grandma quietly judge the lot of the family. She knows too much about too much, you think. The sweat gathers on her brow. You love each bead as you love each drop of wisdom she’s given you over the years. You’re getting older, she reminds you, which means she’s getting older, too. Time is too limited. Things are too precious. Wasn’t this just supposed to be a barbeque?
Your current favorite song is Isaiah Rashad’s “Brenda.” You spun it a few times over in the car on the way to your parents’ place. “She said, ‘You, you can’t save em all” haunts you as you look at your grandma. You’d like for this woman to live forever. She’s been a mother to you when your mother couldn’t be—been a friend when you had none. You watch her struggle to get up and grab a paper plate. Each lumbered movement a dagger to the chest. Can’t you save someone, just this once?
“by george (outro)”
The summer’s almost down. The nights are getting too cold for shorts; the days are losing their signature humidity. Friends are going back to school, off to work, or staying the same. Where do you go from here? Another summer is done, and what do you have to show for yourself? You think of each memory made. Every fling, every promise. Everything feels so fleeting. The sun weighs on your shoulders for months and then disappears for a year. It doesn’t seem fair. How about one last party? One last hurrah. Out to the water. Gather in the yard. Walk the streets. Pass around something dangerous and escape.
There’s this Isaiah Rashad line you love: “I know the world can wait / I ain’t been there in so long.” Life is about to resume in its profoundly non-affecting manner. The leaves will change, and so will your tastes. Another summer for the books, where you’ll never be that person again. All those anxieties about happiness being so fragile, so temperamental, they’re all coming true. But you can still be happy, you think. “I gotta, gotta new me, yeah,” Zay says to end his album outro. Summer’s over; it’s a new you. Are you ready for them?
“Find a Topic (homies begged)”
All your favorite patio bars have closed up for the season. Everywhere you look, there are deadly auburn colors and crinkling underfoot. You’re feeling listless. Soon enough, there will be nothing to do and nowhere to go. You envy evergreen trees, how they always have a point to make, regardless of the time of year. If only you were so pertinent. Permanent. A fixture. Isaiah Rashad ends his album with a lick of spite, you recall. He replies to Dave Free, begging him to find something of value to rap about. What you wouldn’t give to be needed like that. Already, you’re thinking of next summer. You’re thinking of what you’ll do differently. When the time comes, we’ll see how good you are at keeping promises.