The rapper Isaiah Rashad, from Chattanooga, Tenn. emerged on the scene in 2013 and quickly shot to fame. He signed with Top Dawg Entertainment, and released two critically acclaimed projects — 2014’s Cilvia Demo and 2016’s The Sun’s Tirade — and then also twice he disappeared from public view, folding inward as he struggled with substance abuse and his mental health.
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He’s back in the news again, doing press to coincided with his second official full-length album, The House Is Burning, which was released Friday.
And he loves DC Comics and Shazam! and Mr. Miracle in particular.
“It’s just surreal to me. I don’t even really believe that s***,” he tells NPR over Zoom. “It feels like I’m still working in like my old fast food s***, no matter how many times we do this. I feel fortunate, but it never feels like the real thing. Maybe in a couple of years.”
An obsessive comic book reader, when Rashad finds space in a storm of triplets to compare himself to a superhero on “From the Garden,” he chooses Billy Batson — the DC hero who splits his time between the form of the all-conquering Shazam and a troubled teen always a couple steps away from disaster.
You got really into comic books over the past couple of years. I want to talk about if you’ve learned anything about your own art from getting really deep into comics.
I don’t know where the interest came from, but I started getting into them, and then at some point in time I started looking at the comics kind of how I look at the movies. I started to see what the artists or what the author or the director were putting into the material: their own stories through the art, through the characters. Their own traumas. And I connected with that. Especially stuff Tom King writes, or Donny Cates or Ed Brubaker. It’s a handful of them, even Robert Kirkman.
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I can see somebody in their stuff, and I can really empathize. I feel it. It helped through a lot of my own s***, but it also made me realize that there are other mediums I could put my feelings and my imagination into.
Rashad told Fader that comics helped him with his depression.
“Comics are a better form of escapism… a healthier form,” he says.
“Than what?” I ask.
“Drugs,” he reflexively answers, laughing. “Drugs and doing reckless, thrill-seeking shit.”
For the next half-hour, Rashad offers a graduate-level tutorial on modern comics and graphic novels, a kindly gesture towards me, someone who hasn’t read a comic book since DC killed and revived Superman shortly after Isaiah was born. I don’t know Tom King from Chip Zdarsky, Ed Brubaker from Andrew MacLean. For the benighted, these are the kinds of guys who pop up in Google searches decked out in fedoras and newsboy caps and wispy auburn beards at Comic-Con.
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Rashad dreams of one day writing his own comic and creating its soundtrack. It’s the organic fate of the little boy who retreated into the computer lab after school, writing his own Dragon Ball Z strips while waiting for his mother to finish work at the beauty salon. He wanted to be a professional wrestler too, but genetics did him few favors on the height front. Much later, before rap took off, he seriously debated heeding his mom’s advice and becoming an electrician.
But now, in comic heaven, Rashad points at the East of West series and tells me: “This is about death, famine, war, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
I ask if he thinks a lot about death. A new song from The House is Burning opens: “Feet don’t fail me now, I’m dead”; his lyrics have frequently thrown up suicidal thoughts and random morbidity.
“Nah. Kinda. I used to, but not so much anymore,” he explains. “I’m kinda okay with it, as long as it don’t hurt.”
His favorite hero, the protagonist who best embodies Zay’s duress, quirks, and struggles, is Mister Miracle. “He was tortured his whole life, and he learned from being tortured,” Rashad says in his half-mumbled, hyper-musical drawl. His gaze stays locked on the metal columns stacked with comics. “[Mister Miracle] kept on trying to escape from hell and did it so much that it became a superpower of its own. Man, you got to read it to understand…”
He hands me a copy of Tom King’s 2017 Mister Miracle, a revival of an old school DC Comics staple, one of the final early-‘70s creations of the legendary Jack Kirby, the Promethean co-creator of Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, X-Men, and Iron Man. Its cover depicts a masked superhero who looks like The Flash in a green cape. Around a hundred pages in, the Job-like plagues leave Mister Miracle with a 2007 Williamsburg Hipster Jesus beard.
The parallels are obvious. No one is about to compare Chattanooga with the brimstone pits of eternal damnation, but no rapper had broken out of Scenic City until TDE made Rashad the face of its second generation, alongside SZA, in 2013. Until Rashad, the most famous piece of music to be associated with Tennessee’s fourth-most populous city had been the “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” a swing anthem recorded by Iowa’s Glenn Miller in 1941. Rashad’s links to the underworld run deeper than that, though. And to fully understand them, we first need to run down the plotline of his DC Comics analogue.
Behold Mister Miracle, alter-ego of Scott Free, son of the kindly warrior-king Highfather. In a failed attempt to bring peace to the cosmos, Highfather swapped children with his nemesis, a wicked tyrant named Darkseid intent on pursuing the “anti-life equation,” a weapon composed of the fears and anxieties of the human mind. As a consequence of his father’s abandonment, Free is exiled into Hell and tortured by his caretaker, Granny Goodness, who ensures that the princeling remains unaware of his royal heritage. The indomitable Free refuses to let his spirit be broken, becomes a masterful escape artist, and manages to break out of his prison. This is where the dramatic superhero cartoon noises would start to crescendo. Finally unbound, he becomes Mister Miracle, a hand-drawn Houdini so ingenious that he kills himself in an attempt to see if he can escape death. The act leaves him in an interzone limbo, fighting demons, unclear whether he’s survived or not.
“It made me real emotional reading it; I don’t know why,” Rashad says, knowing exactly why. “During that time, I was going through some petty tortured shit: from rehab to going all the way fucking broke. Instead of leaping buildings, I was just like, ‘Nah I’m gonna just stay in the crib.’ The responsibility was just too scary.”