Since he came to Champaign-Urbana for school from Chicago in 2014, Isaiah Gilbert has been honing his artistic ability, steadily biding his time, always focused on his artistic progression. Five years later, IsaiahG’s unrelenting, undeviating journey in Champaign-Urbana is ascending to its peak.
In December, he is set to graduate from Illinois with a degree in Aerospace Engineering with a minor in Economics. But arguably, September 27th is the bigger date on the calendar for the philosophic spitter from Englewood.
That’s because he’s opening for budding Dreamville Records star JID at PYGMALION, an MC who hails from East Atlanta and has taken the hip-hop charts by storm with his rapid-fire flow and hard-hitting lyrical barrages.
For the similarly lyrically gifted IsaiahG, the opportunity is the culmination of an undergraduate career in which he balanced the demands of being an engineer and being an artist who holds themselves to a high standard.
It hasn’t been easy.
IsaiahG has been releasing music since even before he graduated from Jones College Prep.
He witnessed fellow Jones alum Chance the Rapper’s meteoric rise to stardom from close range and has been a fixture in the Chicago underground scene, even while spending most of the year at school in Champaign.
His musical resumé is one any aspiring artist from Chicago could hang their hat on.
He is regularly featured on the wildly popular blog/multimedia outlet Lyrical Lemonade, he’s got absolute scorcher with Saba — one of the Chicago’s most popular MC’s — called “Yes”, and he has rocked the big stage before, too, opening for trap rapper Smokepurpp in 2017.
Sometimes, listening to IsaiahG is like coming home after a hard day and looking in a mirror — his self-deprecating, acutely aware style lends itself to lyricism that is pensive and examines the many aspects of who he is, and then he puts it all out there for listeners to digest and apply to themselves. He aims to provoke thought and self-examination.
The artist/engineer’s creative process is multi-faceted and mostly isolated. He works almost exclusively with producer and longtime friend Aaron Deux, who recently moved back to Chicago from Los Angeles.
When it comes to writing and recording, IsaiahG does it all on his own, in his room with his own equipment. Then it gets sent off to Deux for the mixing and mastering, then off to the people.
Being an aerospace engineer and rapper might not seem to go hand-in-hand, but it gives IsaiahG a unique perspective from which he operates and aims to stoke listeners’ imaginations.
Much like Saba or Kendrick Lamar, another prominent artist he admires, IsaiahG spouts his flows and weaves vivid stories and analogies with his music. For him, it’s not about making music that sounds like what else is popular in hip-hop or what he thinks his listeners will like best.
It’s about scraping into the gray areas of life, issues and consciousness and drawing his listeners into those areas to lead them to their own conclusions.
“I really look for little details in how to get people involved, get people irritated and how to get people to keep coming back,” IsaiahG said. “It’s weird, but you’ve got to dust up the feathers. There’s a level of gray area that you have to operate in. The gray area is where people debate, and that’s what art is, debating over the gray areas of things.”
Before he hits the stage at PYGMALION, is set to release T-Minus, his first project since late 2017’s Knowspace EP.
A countdown to the release of his debut album Contact, expected to drop in early 2020, T-Minus is a four-track EP that features all sides of IsaiahG.
“I got energetic me, then I’ve got my soft, Drake me,” he said. “I’ve got four tracks, four different tracks. One is meme-able, one is super serious, some of the hardest bars I’ve ever spit. One of them is fun. Another one is real somber. It’s a lot of emotions just thrown in there.”
Sometimes he blends those identities, like on 2018 track “SOLSTICE”, where he raps about his "bird chest" while flexing his deep knowledge of the genre. He references Cam’Ron and Juelz Santana’s 2002 hit "Oh Boy", rapping, “bird chest, but it’s made of metal like it’s a big vest, so when they shoot I say, ‘Oh boy, like I’m from Dipset’”.
It’s taken a long time to develop the perspective he has and to progress to his current state as a music-maker. His background in engineering and data science, blended with studies of economics and experience marketing and releasing music is converging and allowing him to succeed just as he is about to move back to Chicago to start his career, which he will use to finance his musical pursuits.
Often, Gilbert will start to say something and then pause, backtrack and start over with a clearer, more acutely delivered message that better reflects what his intentions are. Everything he projects as an artist and person is carefully calculated and considered.
That and his wide-ranging skill set have him confident he can succeed going forward as an artist, beyond the Canopy Club stage and the campus he’s lived on for years.
“I don’t know if my heart is engineering, but [I use] that level of technical skill that I have had to perform at, mixed with my business practice and my marketing skills that I use when I make music and all this creative energy I have to offer,” IsaiahG said. “I really just want to get something out of life. I feel like I could put my engineering prowess into marketing [music]. You’ve got to know the nuts and bolts of things, I like to really focus on the details.”
A while ago, though, Isaiah battled deep frustrations and had doubts about himself as an artist.
Early in 2019, he openly mused on Twitter about continuing to make music, but ceasing to promote and market himself as an artist. Basically, he thought about putting his rap career on the back burner.
Loads of folks — longtime friends, mutual followers and listeners — replied and encouraged him to keep on, and a few days later he found the inspiration to continue the push.
“Me and my homie were listening to all the music that helped us form our opinions on rap,” IsaiahG said. “It’s not like we were intentionally playing that music, it was just what we were playing. I was like, dang, I might be depriving somebody else of that feeling. Who’s to say that I haven’t influenced anybody else and down the line, somebody else blows up that used to listen to me. You know what I’m saying?”
Sure, he hasn’t attained millions of plays or fame, but his music has reached listeners all over the country and has racked up hundreds of thousands of plays on streaming services. He knew he wanted to keep putting himself out there and potentially provide the same means of artistic inspiration that others have given him.
“I can’t just be living on Earth only to see what I can take from the Earth,” he said. “My purpose here will be something about a distribution of that give and take. That’s the proper existence.”
Now, it’s time to take that reassured drive and renewed sense of optimism to the big stage at Canopy.
“It’s huge. JID is right there in my line and pocket of hip-hop that I’m trying to branch out to,” IsaiahG said. “Everything that JID does is something that you can see me doing in five years, from a skills point, from a branding point of where I can go, music quality. Lyrical assassins.”
Sure, it’s taken a while, but everything is finally falling into place for IsaiahG.
“I’m just in a good place,” he said. “I feel like the years of work, there’s just an undeniable attention and work just put in. Everybody can see that shit. You see the work I’ve put in, now I’m going to actually put the work out. You’re gonna love it.”
IsaiahG is performing on Friday, September 27th at the Canopy Club as a part of PYGMALION's headlining show with JID and Dua Saleh. Tickets are on sale now.
Photo provided by IsaiahG