Rashad powered through an unseasonably stuffy night at House of Blues. Lance Skiiiwalker and Jay IDK opened.

isaiah rashad photo
Isaiah Rashad

When Isaiah Rashad’s Lil Sunny Tour came to the House of Blues' Parish Tuesday night, the room became a sauna. The heat that simmered off the crowd rose, got trapped in the haze of weed smoke hovering overhead and then rained sweaty drops down on our heads. Rashad did his best to accommodate his moist audience, passing out water bottles and shaking others up to spray them into the crowd, although the splash radius only reached 10 or 15 rows back. He made light of the situation, at one point even starting a “stay hydrated” chant, so even the fans in the back could laugh it off and stay with him as he embarked on a daring hip-hop quest.

He opened with “Smile,” a hard-hitting loosey from early 2016 when fans were still questioning if there would ever be a second album. Then he paused to go over some ground rules for the show. The first—No pushing women—seemed obvious, but with all the domestic violence charges in the rap community of late, it was refreshing. The second—No pushing anyone into the speaker—was accompanied by an explanation that some people like to get live during Rashad’s shows while others like to keep it mellow, and that both types of fans should respect each other’s space.

He explained that he was a musician, not a comedian, and that he would be doing a lot of rapping and singing but not much talking for the rest of the show. Rashad didn't keep that promise though, and took quite a few conversational interludes throughout his set, and some of them very closely resembled standup. At one point, he borrowed a spliff from an audience member up front, and after a couple hits, rasped out, “Smoking and rapping. It ain’t as fun as it looks,” with perfect comedic timing.  Later, after asking the crowd to jump during the final lines of the Mike Will Made It-produced “A lot,” he stopped the music and joked that it was always hilarious to watch his stoner fans try to jump, because they never got up very far off the ground.

The comedy bits added some levity to Rashad’s music, which is often quite serious, dealing with heavy issues such as race, depression, and the loss of loved ones. On his latest album, The Sun’s Tirade, his smoky voice oozes over minimalist, jazzy beats, exploring the ugly corners of his dark landscapes with unflinching realism.

While not as successful as some of his TDE labelmates, Rashad has built a devoted following, and it showed on Tuesday. He defied the trend of rappers who let their DJs “press play” and then dance around on stage rather than going in over beats live. Rashad went a cappella for a portion of almost every song. Generally, he did it during slow, recognizable refrains, allowing the whole crowd to join in, but he also cut the beat for some of his more daunting lyrical gymnastics, and quite a few fans stuck with him word for word. The performance was reminiscent of Freddie Gibbs’ show at Republic in the fall, when he rapped unaccompanied for long, virtuosic stretches. In an era when rapping live is no longer considered necessary, some still choose to go the extra mile.

With so much of today’s hip-hop (and some of the best hip-hop, in my opinion) based on the principles of over-stimulation and instant gratification, Rashad and some of his peers are choosing to go the tougher, less lucrative route of nuanced, unembellished bars. Many a backpacker has claimed to be the gatekeeper of lyricism, but TDE standouts like Rashad and Kendrick—as well as fringe types like Freddie Gibbs and Denzel Curry—are the ones who may legitimately hold the keys.

Rashad might not be doing anything radical stylistically, but he’s no boom bap rapper either. More importantly, he avoids clichés like “I love independent women” (Drake, J. Cole) or “I’m the realest” (every rapper ever). His message is profound and personal, whether he’s discussing his complex relationship with his father or just reminding everyone to drink more water.