iLL LiaD, aka Brandon Rodriguez, is sitting in the lobby of McDonald's in St. Luke's in the Medical Center. He is 23 years old, and looks exactly like a 23-year-old.
Rodriguez is married, but does not live with his wife. He lives at home with his parents, which sort of has something to do with his kicking a cop car, but really has to do with addiction. Everything tends to spiral back to addiction for him.
Rodriguez recorded a rap album last year and released it on December 31. He called it Salvation, but many who listened found it sacrilegious. In "Feel My Pain," for example, he shouts, "So witness my pain, it's for all of the brainwashed kids that get told to join a religion 'cause we have nothing else to offer."
He doesn't, or isn't, denouncing God — on the contrary, Rodriguez is especially spiritual in thought — he is disassembling Man's preternaturally secular role in a religious context. God is always good, but men can be evil.
iLL LiaD spends a good portion of the album arguing towards his thesis statement. You can pick it out easily if you pay attention. Even if you don't, though, it's hard to miss — the very first song is a Screwed church hymn, and the cover features a picture of a big cross.
"I wasn't saying that I was Jesus or that I am a savior," says Rodriguez, "I was saying that I'm a savior for Houston rap."
This is how iLL LiaD talks. Sometimes the pieces fit together, sometimes they don't. He says he's not a savior, but when we asked him for press pictures for this story, he sent three. One of them was a close-up of him, shirtless, bloodied and wearing a crown of thorns.
At the moment, Rodriguez is eating an ice cream cone, the only thing he ordered from the cashier. That humming noise fluorescent lights make sounds extra loud right now. A bulb might be loose or about to go out or whatever. People flow in and out of the place. A Latino man is standing in the corner with three tiny kids that are likely his children. One of them, a tiny boy in a stroller built to look like a big plastic car, is flipping the fuck out.
Rodriguez has two sons. He never gets to see the one who lives in The Woodlands. He lost those rights because he was, in his own words, an unfit father at the time of the birth. He was addicted to Xanax then.
"I'm a horrible person when I'm on drugs," Rodriguez states.
He gets pictures, but that's it. He hasn't smelled his firstborn son's hair in two years. His other son, his current wife's child, he sees him regularly. He's hopeful that their budding family will come back together soon, but he wouldn't be terribly surprised if it didn't. Bad things happen.
In 2004, Rodriguez overdosed on a tranquilizer that doctors prescribe to insomniacs. In 2006, he overdosed on crack cocaine. In 2008, he overdosed on Ecstasy.
Rodriguez has a history of drug abuse.
He started taking drugs in middle school. He went to Pershing Middle and Bellaire High. In high school, he smiled a lot. He played baseball and was a dancer — jazz, contemporary and hip-hop.
His mother was a psychiatrist and his father owned a commercial contracting company. They had money. And his friends (mostly white) did too, enough that there was a disconnect between what a parent/child relationship should have been and what, regarding Rodriguez and his friends, they actually had.
"It was really weird," recalls Rodriguez. "We'd all get together and do drugs. All of the parents knew. But most of the kids came from homes where they were divorced or just didn't care. They'd give 'em money and let 'em do what they wanted to."
When Rodriguez's father became ill in 2003, he had to stop working. They didn't have money anymore, at least not as much as Rodriguez needed, so he started dealing drugs. He'd go to Third Ward or Fifth Ward, buy what he needed, then sell it to high-school kids.
He sold them everything. He sold them crack cocaine and told them it was freebase cocaine. Later, he started using his own drugs and things quickly unraveled.
Rodriguez is not chunky, but he's not thin, either. His shoulders push forward, his neck following, lowering his chin. He wears glasses, two (fake) diamond earrings and a wedding ring. He does not immediately look like a recovering drug addict, but that's the point. Rodriguez has been in and out of hospitals and rehab centers enough to understand that he will never be Recovered, only Always Recovering.
Sometimes, Rodriguez can feel the pressure of being a responsible adult mounting, be it working a job or reconciling his love life or generating a musical career out of nothing. It mashes down on him. He feels it figuratively, and right now, he almost feels it literally, too.
Seven floors above him, Rodriguez's father has just been moved from the ICU into a traditional hospital room. His liver no longer works. Rodriguez explains that his dad contracted hepatitis C, which is basically shutting down his innards and getting progressively worse.
"He could die tomorrow, he could die a year from now. No one knows," says Rodriguez, who found his dad throwing up blood a week ago.
"I feel that's why the stuff happened with my wife," he adds. "God wanted me to be at home at that time to find him and help him."
On Thanksgiving of last year, Brandon's older brother, Christian, fell asleep while driving home from Thanksgiving dinner. When the car hit a barrier, he died. Rodriguez, then sober for two years, cracked up.
Drugs, drugs, drugs.
God directs things, which Rodriguez knows. But he's not certain why God directed that to happen. He offers up an answer about how it was maybe meant to help him understand how fragile life is, but he doesn't sound like he's doing a very good job of convincing himself.
iLL LiaD talks for a considerable length of time before bringing up his new album, Dope 6ic. The title (pronounced "dope sick") is a reference to the feeling someone gets when they're weening themselves off drugs. Rodriguez says he was high for upwards of 80 percent of Salvation's creation.
The new album was done entirely sober, and will be released in about a month. Rodriguez is confident that it's great, but still nervous about how it will be received. As it is, only a handful of people have heard it in its entirety. He swears that it's exceptional, that Houston has never heard anything like it, that it could be the beginning of his trek towards national stardom.
Given how hard life has punched iLL LiaD in the jowls, that sort of hyper-positive assertion feels reflexive, and almost a little incidental. Music and life are not interchangeable, even if sometimes they seem that way.
iLL LiaD is a savior, even if he isn't.
He understands that, even if you don't.