Isaiah Rashad The Phoenix, Toronto ON, January 26
Published Jan 27, 2017The lineup to enter The Phoenix stretched so far down Sherbourne Street that they had to delay the concert's scheduled start time in order to make sure the venue was good and crammed when Isaiah Rashad snatched the microphone.
Pulling a house full of Top Dawg Entertainment devotees, Isaiah Rashad McClain is in the early going of his travel-intense, 65-show "Lil Sunny Tour," which ping-pongs across North America, then journeys to Europe. Sixty-five shows between January and April ain't no joke, and considering the rapper is performing double-headers some nights in the larger cities, exhaustion may become a concern.
The 25-year-old's skeletal stage show depends entirely on his energy. There are no video screens to distract, no hypeman to punch up the hooks, no musicians to add twists on the iTunes versions — not even a backdrop. Just an exuberant, leave-it-all-on-the-floor Rashad with a soft assist from the press-the-play-button style DJing of friend/producer DJ Chris Calor.
When the frills are nil, it helps to be preaching to the converted, and the all-ages, sold-out mob came starving for Rashad's brand of hazy, groovy, lyrically dense raps.
A product of Chattanooga, Tennessee who grew up on his mom's Too $hort and Scarface collection, Rashad began accruing an underground following with the release of 2014's acclaimed breakthrough EP, Cilvia Demo, but when he toured that project through Toronto, it was in venues a third the size of the 1,300-capacity Phoenix.
He was also depending on Xanax and booze at that time, and delivered a memorably sloppy and heavily inebriated set at the Revival in 2014, between sips. That one was fun until it was sad. Rashad later admitted that his lack of focus and fight with depression nearly got him dropped from the label that has helped make Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q stars.
So it was relieving Thursday (January 26) to see the MC so invigorated and precise as he ran efficiently through a 70-minute set list that dropped back-catalogue favourites amongst the best selections from 2016's debut studio LP, The Sun's Tirade. The water bottles lining the DJ booth provided his only form of refreshment.
Bounding onstage in a black Toronto Blue Jays strap-back, black Champion sweatshirt, black denim overalls and pristine-white kicks, Rashad kicked off proceedings with "Smile" and seldom slowed down.
Crowd-urging and time-killing banter was kept to a minimum. Rashad, rhyming expertly in his trademarked sativa rasp, seemed more concerned with cramming as many joints as possible into the night: "Menthol," "Find a Topic," "Brenda," "Wat's Wrong." (I would've loved to hear "Nelly," but it went unplayed.)
On record, Rashad's vibe comes off decidedly downtempo and groovy, as if all the ideas were filtered through a bong. Live, however, he bounces across the stage and juices up his hooks, spitting with so much volume his vocals strain at times. There's too much movement to keep a sweatshirt on, and eventually the black tee underneath went, too.
"Testify" and the brilliant "R.I.P. Kevin Miller" went over swimmingly, and no-brainers like "4r Da Squaw" and "Shot You Down" bulked up the set's latter half.
Before heading to the next city, Rashad slipped on a rack-fresh red Jose Bautista jersey and led his followers through a rendition of "Free Lunch."
The DJ cued up Kendrick's "Alright," in case you forgot which crew he rolled with, then Isaiah Rashad disappeared without an encore.
"It's been very fun," he said. "It's been a good one."