Review Summary: "The House Is Burning, so are you going to run in there and get your trophy from a couple of years ago and those shoes you like? Or, are you going to move on?"
It's been 5 years since we heard more than a "Why Worry"-sized peep from Isaiah Rashad, your coolest friends' favourite rapper with a total of 2 albums. Truthfully, the one-off single and endless teasers on IG only made the wait feel longer, especially with recent years feeling more like an entire goddamn decade. Thankfully, The House is Burning
has the dreamily timeless feel of his best work, without living up to the absurdly high standard Cilvia Demo
This is no swing for classic status, nor does it want to be: Rashad stays in his own lane, making woozy music for late nights and jagged hangovers, keeping the feeling of ATLiens
alive in the modern sphere. As a rapper he's always been straightforward yet entirely compelling, moving at his own pace, staying wholly unconcerned with the state of the scene around him. It's both a blessing and a curse. Zay's world is a uniquely compelling one: half unbelievably chill smoke-out anthems, half Biblical guilt from an insomniac preacher, but when these relaxed reckonings with trauma collide with the demand to meet the obligatory Big Single, things don't go so well. The egregiously simplistic "Lay Wit Ya" and a grating, unnecessary Lil Uzi Vert feature threaten to derail The House is Burning
before it's had a chance to get going, even with the beautiful "RIP Young" sequenced between them. What we need is for guests to meet Rashad in his little slice of life, not to drag him out of it: the smooth-as-butter "Claymore" featuring Smino pulls this off, along with album highlight "Score", which taps 6LACK and SZA to integrate into a borderline R&B style that's woozy even for Rashad's standards.
It's no coincidence that the laidback joints emerge as high points - this is the least rap-forward Isaiah Rashad has ever been. His flow and delivery remain immaculate, but wedded this time around to a relaxed, peaceful demeanour that has little in common with the hungry spitter we heard on "Wat's Wrong". I mean, I get it: Rashad is in his 30s now, and on the other end of a stint in rehab which helped him walk back from a drop he'd been eyeing since before the release of The Sun's Tirade
. He's older and wiser, not the prodigal son who burst onto the scene with a near-classic, but still a man with something real to say. It's a shame that more of The House is Burning
's time isn't spent saying it: the album splits the difference between proclamations of growth that are genuinely powerful and zero-calorie shit like "crush it up, crush it up, crush it up, crush it up, crush it up nice / break it down, break it down, break it down, break it down, pick it up, pick up a price" one too many times. When he does find his muse, though, Rashad is as good as ever: the phenomenal "Don't Shoot" sees him employing an energetic flow and shape-shifting delivery to accompany a thoughtful meditation on how the adoration of his fans fed into some bad habits: "You was lookin' to a light, I was lookin' for a lighter / I was fuckin' with fire in the worst way".
Ultimately the thoroughly satisfying maturation on display is enough to overcome any lyrical shortfalls. In a bizarre turn, the most comprehensive and clear statement I've seen Rashad make on the album came from a Reddit post: "To me, the title sounds like a book—not a rap album. I'm really writing my life. The world's on fire, but nobody cares. It's an observation. The House Is Burning, so are you going to run in there and get your trophy from a couple of years ago and those shoes you like? Or, are you going to move on? Can you grow for yourself? Am I going to sacrifice myself for some old shit? No, I'm going to move on." This is an album about moving on, and refusing to risk the flames for relics of the past. "You are now a human being", Rashad repeats mantra-like at the end of "HB2U", a stunning and moving end to an album as clearly personal as this. The unspoken question that hangs over the entire album, colouring even its chillest moments with a hint of melancholy: now that you're finally here, what do you do with it?