Best albums of 2021: Isaiah Rashad’s ‘The House Is Burning’
The rapper depicts an all-too-familiar love-hate relationship with the South
The Undefeated asked our writers to pick the most important albums from an insane year. Find the rest of their selections here.
I love the South. Particularly the Black South that is full of liberation, fire, Medgar Evers and Fannie Lou Hamer, fried catfish and people who crumble cornbread over their greens. I’ve lived and felt my truest self in the South for my entire life. Even after knowing how this place tried to kill my daddy in the ’60s and steal land from my grandaddies before then. I’ve known since I was a child that I’ll never truly leave the South, even though this South, the post-Donald Trump South of rage and violence, feels like it’s pushing me closer to death than I’ve ever been.
I write this from my home outside of Atlanta, in Cobb County, where a governor and school superintendent would rather appeal to their base than enforce public health protocols that would keep my children safe. Where the appeal to Southernness supersedes mask mandates in schools, quarantine protocols and vaccinations. I wake up sending my kids to school, wondering if my love of this place has doomed us. This is the loudest I’ve ever heard the siren song calling me to leave.
I listened to Isaiah Rashad’s The House Is Burning in the midst of my Southern despair. On the surface, the album is about Rashad’s battles with addiction and how that addiction makes him feel like death is impatiently waiting for him. But the album felt like it was reaching out to me as I grappled with the particular death that feels inevitable when you’re a Black person living in the South. Though I’ve never known true chemical addiction or the near-death experience of substance abuse, I do know what it feels like to experience euphoric hell. Tortuous nirvana. Foreboding glory. Loving danger. These are the things you feel when you find yourself loving your Black Southernness and wondering when its homegrown noose will tighten.
Rashad made a name for himself in the Nashville, Tennessee, underground rap scene for his syrupy flow and a voice that sounds like the way a Cadillac trunk rattles when someone’s added new speakers to it. He joined Top Dawg Entertainment, the same label that houses Kendrick Lamar (for now), in 2013, and has since released some of the best albums of the 2010s with 2014’s Cilvia Demo and 2016’s The Sun’s Tirade. While fans have been waiting for new music, Rashad’s life has been a blur of financial troubles, drug addiction, rehab, comic books and rediscovering himself.
And it’s that battle with addiction that’s been the focus of so many reviews, interviews and features about Rashad and The House Is Burning. After all, so much of the album is about the way drugs and trying to keep their siren song under control brings Rashad to the verge of death. For instance, some variant of the sentiment “don’t die” appears multiple times on the album across multiple songs, as if to remind Rashad not to indulge in self-destruction to the point of no return. The final refrain of The House Is Burning has the lines, “This ain’t hard as it gets, but I’m still on drugs/You are now a human being.” For Rashad, death is always around the corner and drugs are a constant culprit.
But drugs aren’t the only thing that keeps death lurking. The other is Rashad’s love of the South. Every Rashad album is an ode to the South that raised him: from songs named after rapper Scarface or Playaz Circle to reusing Southern rap lyrics for his hooks. This also happens on The House Is Burning where he reuses a Pimp C lyric for the hook to “Chad” (Pimp C’s first name) and lyrics for the semiobscure “bunny hop” dance song popular in “Wat U Sed.” But Rashad, who now lives in Los Angeles, also knows what American history and living in the South has taught him: Geography kills. That’s why he raps, “Imagine how n—as came up from the South/Knowing them streets done did you dirt” on “9-3 Freestyle.” That’s where we find a narrative thread that binds all of the themes of The House Is Burning: It’s about loving two things that feel more life-threatening the more you love them, even when we can feel the terror at the edge of our eyelashes.
The beauty about being in the South is the way that Southern joy makes you forget what lurks. How the cookouts and Cadillacs and 8Ball & MJG and Josephine Johnnys and stories your mama tells you about COFO and knock in the trunk can transport you to a world of ancestral psychedelics where police and cotton fields and Tate Reeves don’t exist. It’s that rush that I know I can’t get anywhere else. It’s that ecstasy that will keep me here in spite of what statistics and Pew reports and life expectancy charts tell me. If I leave, I’ll be forever chasing that high.
Living in the South feels like an addiction. Like something that holds on to us and doesn’t let go. Rashad treats the South like he treats his drug use. He wants to be free from the worst parts of both, but he knows they’ll stay with him forever in some form — “just a weekend buzz,” as he sings on the titular track.
Therein lies the resistance of Rashad’s music. The “don’t die” refrain throughout is a declaration that neither drugs nor the South will kill him. He’ll defy what he’s been told about his lifestyle and live — when being Black and alive feels like resisting: “Whatever was under the bunk bed, I ain’t scared, I’m ready.”