Album Cover via Isaiah Rashad/Spotify

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Donna-Claire was making shrimp while thinking about 10 years of Cilvia Demo.

January 28, 2024, before sunrise: it’s pouring in Philly. A loud demanding rain that would startle anyone awake. Pitch darkness, a gentle grumbling, feeling around for my thyroid meds—I start the day with a lurch. Downstairs now, soft light from the grow lamps over the sage and orchid, reaches me. I cross to the kitchen and make coffee. The sunroom door opens—I open it, I mean—and the chill blasts me in the face.

With coffee ready, I settle into the reading chair, beneath the grow lights, and check the date, the time, the news. Ten years ago, Isaiah Rashad arrived with Cilvia Demo. I pay attention to the social media posts, the memories, and then open Eve Babitz’ Slow Days, Fast Company to her vignette about LA and rain. No one burned hotter than Eve, but I still don’t understand LA.

Isaiah Rashad obviously didn’t understand LA, despite releasing his landmark debut album on the hottest contemporary label on the West Coast at the time. TDE had Kendrick, ScHoolboy Q, Jay Rock, SZA, it was a mecca for kids of a certain age to dub themselves real hip-hop heads. The blog era had just fallen. Digital media was slowly turning into the ghost town it is today but the music of the mid-2010s was still full of life. It was all coming-of-age narratives and charm.

Isaiah Rashad is from Chattanooga, TN. Cilvia Demo bleeds “the South has something to say.” The album had all the swing and sumptuous angst needed for a strong debut. There was narrative tension; there was beauty in the tumult. Zay and SZA were a natural pair across the album. “Shot You Down” with Jay and Q felt like the guys coming over and kicking rhymes like it’s nothing. It was his coronation, on his terms.

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Cilvia Demo follows in a long lineage of debut projects from rappers that they clearly had percolating for their entire young lives. Things run over. The music landscape changes. It’s Nas. It’s Prodigy. It’s Outkast. It’s hip-hop. This is the genre of lonely storytelling. I’m not suggesting this is male debasement-laced emo rock, but most of Cilvia Demo is really f*cking sad.

“West Savannah” is a mournful love song for a generation that then grew into Frank Ocean’s Blonde. “Heavenly Father” asks why God isn’t ever in the room when you need them. Even the flexes on this album are buried beneath layers of stress and woe: “Webbie Flow,” “Ronnie Drake.” For every “fake ass rapper” Rashad tries to dismantle, there is a moment where he asks what might happen to his legacy, today, if he drinks himself to death by the next bar (“R.I.P Kevin Miller”).

The album was critically acclaimed upon release and spawned Isaiah Rashad’s loyal following. For a generation of rap fans, this album cracked open their skull and let the brain hit the frying pan. It was a chorus who chanted “Goddamn, feel like I’m Brad Jordan” at the shows. This was regional music that flowered outward and grew over the foundation laid by the internet’s shrinking the distance between people. It transported you to the Southern alleys in which Rashad found himself.

In the years that followed, Rashad would release two more beloved albums, The Sun’s Tirade and The House Is Burning, all while battling addiction. These albums and that pain all have Cilvia Demo at its core. Cilvia Demo was named after the old Civic he used to ride around in. This title is, in function and form, a universal truth: you can spin your wheels, but you can’t escape your roots.

In the Spotify live session for the album, Rashad says, “I was so 22” in between songs. He reflects on the tunes and the writing and then jumps into a lively performance, something spry and done with his whole early 30s chest. He’s older now, better. I wonder if he still relates to this music. Lately, I’ve been rereading old writing of mine and interviewing older artists for some other project for some other time. They tell me, in whispers, that they don’t feel their old material, but they know that’s what their crowds are there to hear, and they have to find ways to sell their conviction on stage. So I wonder, as I watch Zay perform “Menthol,” if it’s really all pretend. Does he still “live for weed and money”? I hope not.

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I don’t remember where I was the first time I heard Cilvia Demo. I wish I did. I know I downloaded it to my blue iPod Nano. I know I was inseparable from the record. I remember the girl with the cigarettes and the tiny glamor of holding this thing old Hollywood used as a sign of intrigue. I remember friends asking what I’m playing. I remember the way it felt to be all alone in a mansion one night, laying on spotless hardwood floors, listening to “Soliloquy” and wondering when the rest of the party would be showing up. It’s so nice to be young. Something about measuring life between coffee spoons or shots of vodka goes here, I guess.

I think of “Menthol.” I remember this girl I was friends with for a time who smoked them. The ones you crush on the filter to get the “flavor” out through the cig, she always asked me to crush them for her while she adjusted her purse. It was sweet. It was bonding. It was a different time, and she lives in the countryside now and makes spell candles with her husband. Today, now, I run back Cilvia Demo from the top while my elderly cat, Khan, lays on my chest. He turns 15 in two weeks. He can’t lift his hind legs more than a few centimeters and needs me to tend to him for his every catlike need. He was just a baby when this album came out, like the rest of us. That’s the thing about time passing: you’re always just a baby until you realize things change.

January 28, 2024, early evening: I’ve come around to having a glass of whisky and making dinner with my wife. “Can I show you something? Can you humor me for a second?” I ask. She follows me into the frigid sunroom with the fogged windows from the oven being on and the cast iron being heated for shrimp. “This album was, like, everything,” I say, struggling to find the words.

We’re a few songs in when I rip her away from zesting a lemon. It’s track six, it’s “West Savannah,” with SZA, a song that’s made me cry my eyes out over and over again. “Can you just come here for a second so we can hear over the sizzling?” My wife follows me and clear as day we hear, “And I ain’t ever felt no type of way about this living, do or die… At least, we fell in love with something greater than debating suicide.” She tells me she loves this song. I break my humming along and ask her if I’ve played this album for her before. “Yes,” she says.

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