Will Hagle once hit 80 MPH on the carnival radar gun.
If I were running a “Guess Your Age” carnival game, I’d implement one simple trick in order to always get the most accurate results: play people a Mike WiLL beat, and see how they react to it. Isaiah Rashad just turned 25. That’s only a few years older than the Rae Sremmurd brothers, but, in comparison, he approaches a Mike WiLL beat with a sense of ancient wisdom.
The song, “A Lot,” off Rashad’s recent The Sun’s Tirade, could be the best to ever start with the “Eardrummers!” tag. Judging by the lyrics and the tone in which they’re delivered, Rashad has almost written a parody of what he considers a Mike WiLL song to be. The end of the last hook goes, “I want a big ass house, I want a small one / So I can rent that out and I can call you / Like I’m ballin / Like bitch I’m ballin!” Except he doesn’t fully pronounce “ballin’” every time. He does this thing—the same thing he did on Cilvia Demo and does several other times throughout this album—where he occasionally just sputters out the syllables of the words in a self-mocking tone (see 2:35). It’s Rashad’s way of detracting weight from an otherwise serious style of delivery, amidst grainy, muttered lyrics such as “Project Pat was always like a father figure figure.” Or maybe this is all a “Backseat Freestyle”-inspired trap of over-analysis, looking for layered meaning where there’s nothing there besides a good song.
The Sun’s Tirade is a difficult album to comprehend, and so it’s easy to follow these paths of over-thinking. There’s a ton to unpack, because Rashad is a dense writer that uses hyper-specific references and is often tough to understand. The irony of it is that the album is so good, the writing almost comes secondary. The musicality of the album flows together so impeccably that you could listen to it every morning for a week straight, barely catch a word, and still keep coming back.
Some music is made for the background. When you listen to The Sun’s Tirade that way, it locks into a groove, but certain lines still pop out with staggering clarity. There’s true Tennessean nastiness on “Free Lunch” (“I come from where you can’t suck my dick and leave my cousin out”), unsuspecting revelations on “Tity & Dollar” (“Lately I’ve only been bumpin that Yachty”), and sudden emotionalism on “Dressed Like Rappers” (“I can admit / I’ve been depressed / I hit a wall / ouch”). Even if you’re not digesting everything fully, the lines you need to hear make themselves known and the hooks find their way into your head. It’s unclear whether or not that’s intentional, but it says a lot about Rashad’s ability to switch up his delivery, to punctuate when punctuation is necessary.
TDE’s tendency to produce overlong albums, padding track lists with unnecessary jazz interludes and skits, is replicated on The Sun’s Tirade. That’s unsurprising. Rashad may have been a geographic outlier at the time of his signing, but his sound has always meshed with the label’s aesthetic. Over the years, that aesthetic has become regimented. TDE has become an institution. The label’s roster remains inventive for refusing to conform to music’s most popular trends, but, following the initial breakout success of Kendrick, they’ve ultimately been limited by failing to experiment outside of the tropes they’ve created for themselves.
Most of The Sun’s Tirade is slow-paced and filled with sullen melody, like a darker version of Anderson .Paak’s Malibu. Especially flanked by “Dressed Like Rappers” and “Brenda,” the energy of the one upbeat track, “Don’t Matter,” is jarring. The catchiest song is the two-part, 7-minute “Stuck In the Mud,” in which SZA’s first refrain is a repetition of the song’s title and Rashad’s second is, “Just pop a xanny, make your problems go away.”
That refrain, too, is one of the lines that juts out on a passive listen. But the album is filled with similarly poignant references to his personal struggles—overcoming addiction to Xanax and alcohol, reconciling his relationship with his estranged father, and raising his own two children. It’s better if you make the effort to decrypt the words that can otherwise be lost in the hypnotic effect of rhythm and flow. Music shouldn’t have to be studied to be appreciated, but with writing like Rashad’s, that level of attention is more rewarding.
In one of the album’s interludes, which consist of messages left by TDE president Dave Free, Free claims that it’s “creepy” that Rashad was born in 1991, and that he’s talking about “all this life shit.” The life shit is in the details if you listen closely enough, like on “Rope // rosegold” where Rashad sings, “My daddy called me yesterday / and he cried and cried into my phone / about that love he can’t forget / since he left his family all alone,” before confronting the difficulties he faces raising his own children. The life shit of “AA” has more weight if you happen to know the context of his addiction, how it almost got him dropped from TDE, and how he’s bettered himself since. But the beauty of the album is that you don’t even need to hear any of that to enjoy it.
As the Mike WiLL carnival game already taught us, Rashad just turned 25. That’s the same age Kendrick, on “Wat’s Wrong,” claims he became “the best rapper.” Rashad can’t claim the same, but after this contribution to an established musical institution, he might be able to say he’s TDE’s most creative.