By: Tommy “T-Rod” Rodriguez
“Whatever gon’ keep my kids safe, my kids full, I’m with it” Tennessee enigma Isaiah Rashad softly speaks into the mic on “Darkseid,” the dreamlike opener to his latest album, The House is Burning. A signee to the legendary TDE Label, Zay has seemingly been out of the picture for about five years. In a fantastic cover story done by the talented folks at the Fader, fans of the man’s music learned why: addiction, financial troubles and creative blocks were some of the many villains Zay has faced on his journey to come back to the music. Naming your album opener “Darkseid,” (one of DC Comics’ most notorious villains) doesn’t just reflect Zay’s stated interest in comic books: it’s a way to signal to fans and to newcomers that he has fought his demons and walked through the fire.
And he’s willing to burn the whole house down if it means making it out of that fight a stronger man. The House is Burning sounds like a clean slate that proves Zay can bring immaculate vibes, great technical skill, unique songwriting and a classic Southern sound on the surface. Beneath, however, is a man battling his vices on one of this year’s most impressive rap records.
In a way, it feels like Zay has never really left. His voice remains hushed yet attention grabbing, perfectly matching whichever beat he decides to visit. When he arrives on a banger beat like “From the Garden,” his vocals hit an energetic peak as he raps about donuts in foreigners and bedding your cousin in a machine-gun flow. On the other hand, he practices extreme restraint on “All Herb,” wherein he ruminates on the struggles he has faced over the past few years over hazy, rainy-day chords and drums. It feels like the album was made to show every mood Zay felt while recording it, with each track usually looping into the next extremely well. An exquisite playlist of emotion and Southern class.
Speaking of the South, Zay’s influences have never been apparent on an album…and I’m here for it. Unlike many people who pay tribute to their favorite artists or songs, he doesn’t just repeat and reuse the vibes of Three 6 Mafia or Goodie Mob: he contextualizes it to the beat of his own heart. “Lay Wit Ya” is a fantastic mixture of old-school Three 6 Mafia crunk, with Zay softly discussing a relationship he’s taking to the next level, followed by a next-level Duke Deuce feature. “THIB” is one of his darkest and most hypnotic cuts, interpolating Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy” as he discusses his own internal fears and addiction. “Who’s that creeping through my window; who’s that f*cking with my conscience?” he asks over a spooky melody and spare drums, a question that makes even my own stomach churn. There’s moments on this album where Zay is having the time of his life and others were he looks into his very soul.
As a fan of Southern hip-hop, it’s nice to hear these throwbacks put into a modern context, especially since it shows how the roots of the genre have borne fruit. “RIP Young” is the sweetest of these fruits: a biographical number for Zay that bumps hard in the car and doesn’t sacrifice clever songwriting for an incredible Project Pat sample and intoxicating groove. Seeing my fellow Twitter mutuals collectively lose their minds to this song was a perfect example of how great the track is…you really need to experience it.
One of the most prominent aspects of The House is Burning is its personal nature. Numerous songs feel like something you could personally relate to, but are still specific enough to be entirely Zay’s own view. “Don’t Shoot” is a stunning look into the violence one may experience in Zay’s environment, with the repeated phrase of “don’t shoot” hitting harder and harder as Zay urges the listener to live for love and peace. “Headshots,” beyond being one of the most addictive songs I’ve heard all year, sounds like a midnight drive where the passenger is confessing every sin and win the night has offered. “Weed couldn’t settle my fire, couldn’t cover my pain” he sings into the void…it’s a song that hits on first impact and rewards a deeper listen.
Compared to his previous albums, The House is Burning excels at being both easy to listen to and fun to analyze. For me, it’s an exploration on Zay’s personal and musical history…but I feel like people can have a lot of different uses for the album. “9-3 Freestyle” showcases Zay at his most alive and funny on the record, a brisk summertime banger perfect for the pregame. “Score” is the essential soundtrack to a sunset drive with a lovely lady at your side, complete with SZA and 6LACK’S hypnotic harmonies. The features in general are excellent throughout, diversifying the music to make for some interesting combinations. Smino dominates on the ethereal “Claymore,” Uzi’s chaotic brags work perfectly on “From the Garden”, Jay Rock’s verse on “True Story” is brash and brazen, and Iamdoechii brings a relaxed and fun close to “Wat U Sed”. The album’s production, likewise, is smooth, classy and lowkey, a sound that can somehow grab your attention while still not being too in your face. Car music, ladies and gentlemen.
It’s hard to sum up an album that holds so much importance for so many fans and for Zay himself. It’s an incredibly fun listen that offers listeners lots of great moments in its songwriting and features. It’s quiet, but carries a subdued confidence that makes you hang on every word Zay says. Sure, I wish some songs were longer, but in a way the imperfections show what Mr. Isaiah Rashad is: human. On “HB2U,” Zay bares naked his conflicted emotions on moving past his personal demons, diving into faith, family and the lingering weekend buzz he still feels. The album feels human, willing to show you Zay’s flaws but also his fun side. The house is burning all around him, but once the fire settles, he know’s he’ll be stronger than he’s ever been.
So yeah, this album is amazing, you should check it out.
Tracks to Save: “From the Garden,” “RIP Young,” “Lay Wit Ya,” “Headshots,” “All Herb,” “True Story,” “Chad,” “Score,” “THIB,” “HB2U”
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