I listened to “Cilvia Demo” as soon as it came out in 2014, and I will never forget how quickly and potently the album impacted me. To this day, it remains a work to which I frequently return, and it’s an album that I will absolutely never give up listening to.
For May’s upcoming Mental Health Awareness month, I thought it was only right to take a look at “Cilvia Demo,” Isaiah Rashad’s debut studio album. The album taught me so much and helped me verbalize so many issues I was dealing with at the time. It didn’t just uplift me on my first listen, but provided a long-term source of inspiration and a piece of art that has helped me cope at many different times in my life. As dark and depressing as the album gets at times, it provides hope and comfort overall, reminding the listener that they are not alone in what they are going through.
“Hereditary,” the album’s intro, starts with Isaiah remembering some of the most blunt and straightforward issues that he’s faced in his life. It’s easy to see famous artists as invincible and untouchable figures who only experience and express life’s positives, but Rashad so clearly shows the juxtaposition that exists between reality and perception.
“My daddy taught me how to drink my pain away / My daddy taught me how to leave somebody / My daddy taught me how to smoke my load and go / My daddy taught me you don’t need nobody.”
Despite being an emerging star — with massive potential as Top Dawg Entertainment’s new signee — Rashad opened his debut album with an open admission that he just can’t escape his traumas. He helps to remind everybody that trauma does not simply disappear with accolades, and that pain can compound and persist no matter what else is going on in somebody’s life. From the very first lines of the album, Isaiah takes a unique route for a hip-hop project by normalizing vulnerable mental health expression.
“Cilvia Demo” is much more than Rashad wallowing in his depression, though. It’s him navigating becoming both a young man and an emerging figure in hip-hop, consistently reminding the listener that their struggles with mental health don’t define them. Rashad authentically tells his stories of growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, trying to make it in the industry while still coping and struggling with all of his internal and external conflicts. He tells every story through a lens of pain and recovery, but in a way that isn’t overbearing.
The parts of the album without direct references to Isaiah’s mental health struggles tell a complete story of a broken young man who is trying to heal. Waves of confidence resurge without invalidating the struggle and the agony of the bad times. When dealing with depression, we sometimes get so comfortable that we even develop fear towards or an uncomfortability with happiness. It’s easy to accept the feeling that something bad is always imminent, especially when things finally start to go right for once. When happiness is so rare, its brief presence can feel so odd that it makes us uncomfortable. Isaiah’s broad exploration beyond his suicidal thoughts and depression brings nuance to the story and a reminder of the complexity and depth of all people; it’s an encouragement to never define and label people by the issues that they struggle with.
“West Savannah” gives a nod to legendary rap duo Outkast, as well as Rashad’s Southern roots. One of the most beautiful and uplifting songs on the album, it’s a soulful story of Isaiah’s romantic tragedies amidst his healing and pain. The track’s simplicity and elegance make it one of the best of Rashad’s career. Isaiah finally sees his suicidal thoughts subside, and his willingness to live slowly returns to him through the feeling of newfound love. No matter how dark things had become for Isaiah, the affection and care from a significant other did wonders for him, slowly bringing him back to feeling whole. Beyond the depth and potency of the chorus, the song is musically terrific, featuring some of the most alluring love-themed hip-hop music you can find.
“Now can we fall in love / While Southernplayalistic banging through the night? / 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.”
– “West Savannah”
The magnum opus of the album (and Isaiah’s career) comes on the eleventh track. “Heavenly Father” is a perfect song with a beauty that words could never do justice. It’s one of, if not the most, heartbreaking but authentic and comforting songs I have ever heard. It’s a forward and honest breakdown of Isaiah’s daily struggles, his past traumas, his doubts and his fears. He addresses his suicidal thoughts, his lack of hope and his coping: just trying to survive everyday and keep living.
The song’s title and chorus (“Heavenly father, why are you so far away (Oh, I feel like I’m fallin’)) serves a double meaning: first to his perceived absence of a God looking out for him and second to the realized absence of his own biological father. The song also deals with his fears of sharing these stories and the impact that it will have on his career as a hip-hop artist: “And if I give my story to the world / I wonder if they’d book me for a show … The story’s storyteller tell it wrong / And glorify the horror and the wealth.”
Isaiah was clearly troubled and fearful of the juxtaposition of his music against mainstream rap. Despite the progress that society has made, mental health issues are still stigmatized and not universally respected and understood. The very real fear of rejection after coming forth with mental health struggles is relevant for anybody, but perhaps most acutely for a young male rapper coming out of the deep South. The first verse ends with a longing for understanding and a call of comfort to listeners: “I know I’m not the only one alone / I know I’m not the only one that felt”.
“Now, I’m prayin’ that I make it 25 / Baby call a doctor for my health / And ‘no’ is kinda hard to say to drugs / ‘Cause I been havin’ problems with myself.”
– “Heavenly Father”
The second verse dives into his substance abuse issues, his longing for a father figure and the added pressures of the music industry that compound his personal problems. Isaiah has been open about his struggles with addiction and how they compounded his prior issues. The industry hasn’t given him the support that he needs, only a demand to go make money: “And I been askin’ questions, where the love? And they don’t give me answers, just a check”.
Our struggles don’t exist in a vacuum. Trauma isn’t isolated. Pain compounds. As much as we like to isolate incidents or look at specific effects stemming from an exact circumstance, the truth is that our lives are extremely intricate and complicated. Every event’s influence is dependent on the complex web of events that led up to it and the sum of experiences that an individual has faced. We might not ever be able to understand the precise mental outcomes for anybody in any situation, but we can always empathize and be cognizant of shortcomings in understanding. Every song on “Cilvia Demo” is a reminder of this.
Isaiah’s “Cilvia Demo” helped me realize and forever remember these lessons. It has helped me to cope with my own pain at many different points in life. It also always serves as a reminder to the deep suffering that others can be facing at any point. Dealing with personal struggles can often build empathy and wisdom, and with critical thought, it can build a perspective and a heart that can change other people’s lives. The power of Isaiah Rashad’s soul and heart were immortalized with “Cilvia Demo,” an album that will always mean the world to me. I hope the album can mean the world to other people out there looking for ways to manage their personal problems and cope with life’s negatives.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.