On Sunday night, the sight at Detroit’s El Club is impossible to miss: At 8:00 PM, hundreds of twenty-somethings lined up for blocks, eagerly awaiting Isaiah Rashad, Top Dawg Entertainment’s young rap prodigy. The changeable letters on the announcement board show two words beneath the Tennessee-raised rapper’s name: SOLD OUT.
For fans standing in line, the words are unsurprising: Isaiah Rashad is a technically-profound, critically-acclaimed emcee with a cultish following, and 2016 was his biggest year yet. Rashad released his second album, The Sun’s Tirade, in September, and due to the massive success of his debut LP, Cilvia Demo, which came out in 2014, his fanbase and creative space were already well-established.
At the meet and greet, where I had a chance to stop by, about 100 people were lined up, and the rapper received each one with a smile, an organic embrace and warmth, so much so that it was easy to forget they were his paying customers. Standing aside the merchandise table — because that’s where the best lighting is — he poses for photo after photo while his peer acts as a cameraman, shuffling through endless fans’ iPhones as each one stands with the star.
For the most genuine fans, the real-life interactions looked emotional, moving and, above all else, memorable. Rashad’s followers feel personally connected to him because he offers himself wholly and unashamedly in his lyrics. He publicly wrestles with drug-dependency and depression in some songs but, even then, there’s no embarrassment in his inflection: He is a confident, hyper-aware storyteller spitting parables for people to struggle with and learn from. Life is often troublesome but, in Isaiah Rashad’s music, forward-movement is the end goal. So, for his most dedicated fans, meeting him is something like meeting Superman.
Among the crowd of early-enterers is LSA junior Vincent Haze, wearing a University of Michigan long-sleeve t-shirt and waiting to meet with the rapper. Haze is at the show with Anthony Ellis, a friend he grew up with in Ann Arbor, and though the two of them have been listening to Isaiah Rashad’s music since 2013, neither has seen him perform live. When I ask if they’re fans of Top Dawg Entertainment — the record label that hosts Rashad, Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, SZA and others — they confirm my suspicion. “That would be putting it lightly,” one says. TDE loyalty is common in this crowd.
Some time around 10:00 P.M., Jay IDK — a Maryland-raised newcomer with a lot of grit and energy — popped on stage to open the show, but not before his DJ turned the standing room into a mosh pit by asking, “D-town, what the fuck is up?” and leading off with the Migos’ party catalyst, “Bad and Boujee.”
Jay IDK walked out wearing a rubber Ronald Reagan mask for a creative skit built on one of his most defining lyrics: “The Reagan Era put a fucking voice in my head,” he raps on the crack-thrilled song, “The Plug (King Trappy III).” Though he goes on to glorify the salesmanship and slyness of successful drug dealers, the introductory line remains the root of the story: The Reagan Era turned naive kids into criminals. Or, at least, it did according to Jay IDK. But that’s his whole shtick: The IDK stands for “Ignorantly Delivering Knowledge,” so you should expect him to rap with thorough theses and to deliver hot takes.
“Mentality” was next on the setlist, but it wouldn’t arrive without another clever performance: First the DJ shocked the crowd by playing “Bye, Bye, Bye” by N’Sync, setting Jay IDK up to explain that he can’t bring his DJ anywhere because he always “fucks it up.” Jay then played “Mentality,” on which “fucking things up” is an ongoing theme, and the whole thing proved to be a bit. “She Blocked Me” and “I Picture” came next, followed by a heartfelt accapella verse on which Jay IDK found himself watching “The Breakfast Club” and wondering, “How can I get in the conversation?” He closed with “God Said Trap,” two performances of “Boy’s Innocence” and a wild leap into the crowd, where he turned up with the rowdiest attendees. By the time Jay IDK walked off stage, the venue’s volume was at its maximum and a handful of unsure attendees had surely been converted into fans.
11 P.M. rolls around, and a “T-T-T-T-Top Dawg Entertainment” soundbite comes erupting through the speakers as DJ Chris Calor emerges to ask the packed, excited room, “Do y’all fuck with TDE?” After playing Kendrick’s “M.A.A.D. City” and A$AP Ferg’s “New Level,” with the energy peaking, Isaiah Rashad emerged. In-person, he’s shorter than expected (shorter than me, and I am only 5’9”), but on stage he’s larger than life and able to command the crowd like a legendary figure. A huge chunk of the audience knew every word to every song (though his music is seldom played on the radio) and the small club felt just enough like a basement to create a real hip-hop illusion (think the last scene in “8 Mile”).
Isaiah Rashad thrived off of the energy. He opened with “Smile,” a single from 2016, then tore through “Brenda,” “Soliloquy,” and “Dressed Like Rappers” before sandwiching a seemingly improvised singsong about hydrating via drinking water in between “R.I.P. Kevin Miller” and “Tity and Dolla.” His songs range from chilled-out, flowing rap to angsty, aggressive gangster music, but it’s his conscious which creates the cohesion.
By the end of “Heavenly Father” and “Rosegold,” Rashad was so worked up that he had to change his sweat-soaked shirt. “Menthol,” “Stuck In The Mud” and “4r Da Squaw” came next, with the rapper pushing forward at a rapid pace that demonstrated both immense professionalism and and an eagerness to appease every type of fan. He jumped back into older hits, playing “Ronnie Drake,” “Webbie Flow,” “Banana” and even “Shot You Down" and then closed with a string from his The Sun’s Tirade.
Considering the concert kicked off with an artist wearing a Ronald Reagan mask, the night unraveled rather apolitically, especially for a conscious rap show that occurred on the weekend of Donald J. Trump’s inauguration. Early in the night, between the sets of Jay IDK and Isaiah Rashad, a DJ onstage claimed to be curious if the crowd “felt the same way” as him about a current issue, then proceeded to play “F*ck Donald Trump” by YG, a protest rap that’s been earning a lot of attention recently. For a while, it seemed like that might have been the most pointed commentary of the night.
But at the close of his set, after he had finished performing all of his own songs and was simply thanking the crowd for coming out, Isaiah Rashad bopped and moved with the attendees as Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” an anthem of empowerment that seeks out positivity in darkness, blasted through the venue’s amplifiers. In that moment, his genuine engagement spoke louder than any prepared statement could have.
Isaiah Rashad is an evolutionary figure, a human who has struggled (like all do), both privately and in lyric, yet has remained unswervingly focused on continuing to grow, both personally and artistically. The Lil Sunny Tour is his largest headlining effort yet, and he’s fought for this moment his entire life. No one can take it away from him — not even the president. Isaiah Rashad is “gon’ be alright.” As a matter of fact, he’s going to be more than that.