Doc Zeus is from parts unknown.
For an independent rap label approaching total rap game domination, you might not have noticed that Top Dawg Entertainment spent the majority of 2013 scarcely releasing music. After a run of multiple great releases in the two years leading up to Kendrick Lamar’s platinum-selling, Grammy-snubbed masterpiece, good kid, m.A.A.d city – TDE’s 2013 was marked by public feuds with high-profile publications, New York warmongering, and push backs of Schoolboy Q’s Oxymoron — the music label’s highly anticipated follow-up to Kendrick’s debut.
Label CEO, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, President Terrence “Punch” Henderson, and General Manager Dave Free have built one of the most impressive rosters in music. So it was strange that the bulk of the label’s 2013 musical output consisted of a few excellent Schoolboy Q singles that failed to catch fire with the public and a fire-breathing, instant-classic cameo from Kendrick Lamar on a Big Sean loosie. While Kendrick’s post-good kid profile grew bigger than ever, Q’s debut was perpetually delayed and Ab-Soul and Jay Rock were nearly absent save for a few guest verses. For a record label looking to build upon its 2012 breakthrough, it was strange that the year came and went without a major mixtape, album or EP from any of their artists.
Buried in the news was TDE’s shrewd signing of a largely unknown rapper named Isaiah Rashad. Hailing from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Rashad was label’s first signing beyond the core foursome of Lamar, Q, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock. Rashad’s thoughtful, contemplative lyricism tapped into a similar vein as TDE’s flagship artist, Kendrick Lamar. The signing initially seemed surprising: TDE had never signed anyone outside of LA and Rashad immediately invited lazy Kendrick comparisons. But after a few promising songs and an encouraging appearance during the annual BET Awards Cyphers, it was announced that Cilvia Demo, Rashad’s debut, would be the first of a scheduled six releases from TDE in 2014. It marked a thrive-or-merely-survive moment for both the label and it’s newest artist.
The answer is obvious on the remarkable Cilvia Demo — 2014’s first great rap release of 2014. The album continues the label’s hot streak of impressive releases going back to Kendrick Lamar’s Overly Dedicated in September 2010. It’s an eclectic, bohemian-meets-backwoods-of-outer-space vibe that instantly gels from the opening drums to the final couplets. Cilvia Demo is a classic hip-hop coming-of-age tale in the vein of Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d city that deftly narrates Rashad’s life growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Rashad is a gifted lyricist that shades his tales of fatherless childhood and aimless, teenage nights with a raw emotion. Standout tracks such as “Ronnie Drake,” “Shot You Down” and “Brad Jordan” give the record a jazzy and spacey aesthetic that’s reminiscent of formative albums from OutKast and The Pharcyde, but given a decidedly modern feel.
Isaiah Rashad firmly asserts himself as a standout in a growing school of excellent young lyricists including Kendrick and last year’s breakout rapper, Chance The Rapper — ones who forgo punchline-heavy rapping for a melodic, poetic rhyming that’s actually gaining steam in the mainstream. Kendrick might have been one-upped by Macklemore’s cheesy pop hooks and social justice grandstanding at the Grammys this year, but the sheer “outrage” caused by his snubbing suggests that hip-hop fans are increasingly valuing introspective lyricism. Rashad’s music fits into a similar mold as K. Dot. A sly sense of melody in Lamar’s songwriting was a key factor in bridging Kendrick’s cerebral raps to mainstream audiences – a trait that Rashad also shares. More than anything, Cilvia Demo displays strong songwriting — whether on the alien love ‘Kast tribute “West Savannah” or the terrorizing “Soliloquy,” the album’s assaulting statement-of-purpose.
Cilvia Demo marks an incredibly impressive debut for a young rapper. It confirms that Top Dawg Entertainment has amassed the most impressive roster of rappers in the industry and Isaiah Rashad makes a worthy addition to the label’s growing legacy. Schoolboy Q might have declared that TDE had the belt on 2011’s “Druggy With Hoes,” but it seems more likely than ever they aren’t losing the title anytime soon.