Pusha T isn’t the good guy. The first words out of his mouth on Darkest Before Dawn, a chest-beating victory lap and the prelude to his oft-delayed, highly anticipated 2016 album, King Push, are “leave your conscience at the door.” It isn’t a warning; it’s a command, an industry requirement put forth by a rapper who treats coke like chalk in a LeBron James pre-game celebration. Pusha is America’s worst nightmare: a remorseless, industrious hood entrepreneur turning 13 hundred an ounce into Enzos, LaFerraris, and a quarter million dollar gig as president of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint. His is a success story, one paved on a road of white bricks. He’s the Pyrex God, the last cocaine superhero. Pusha T beat the system.
He has constantly reminded listeners of this fact, both as a soloist and as a member of the rap duo Clipse, with his brother (No) Malice. He’s been remarkably consistent with his messaging, from the Clipse debut (“Players we ain’t the same I’m into ‘caine and guns”) to his own (“My first Grammy was my first brick”), aptly titled My Name Is My Name, which served as a fitting introduction to his brand of drug-flexing rhetoric for some and a firm reminder for others. Pusha loves selling coke. It’s the thing he’s most proud of. He has no regrets. And his greatest strength as a rapper is convincing listeners this is okay, that what he’s doing is all in the service of capitalism. He packages his decision-making less as sociopathy and more as opportunism.
On Darkest Before Dawn, he’s as good as he’s ever been at penning slick drug talk. On “Got Em Covered”: “40 keys in a rental/ My dogs bring it back now you name a better kennel.” From “M.F.T.R.”: “They ask why I’m still talking dope, why not?/ The biggest rappers in the game broke, voila.” But he really surprises — and impresses — in his willingness to advance beyond his storied coke glory days for material, both into the present and into varied subject matter. In truth, Pusha has never been a one-dimensional rapper, but many of his songs without coke at the center lack his signature panache. This time around, Pusha touches on issues adjacent to his particular line of expertise.
At the height of this content expansion is “Sunshine”, a song about police militancy that examines a persistent stigma laid plain in the intro: “Still held back, I done paid with my skin.” Pusha raps like a man inspired, writing about black activism the only way he knows how: from a position of fearlessness (“I don’t got no march in me, I can’t turn the other cheek/ While they testing your patience, they just testing my reach”). With an assist from Jill Scott over an isolated drum and bass rhythm that clicks and snaps into an absorbing 808, “Sunshine” is some of the rapper’s sharpest, portrait-painting. “In order to be me/ You gotta see what Chief Keef see,” he raps. “Brenda’s baby next door to the candy lady/ Same project as Candyman where they still doing hand-in-hands/ Sunday to Sunday, pastor only want one day/ Grandma praying someday/ But God can’t hear it over gunplay.” He’s seen sunshine turned into Freddie Gray. It’s crisp, scene-setting imagery. Elsewhere, he pens something resembling a love letter for the women who’ve graduated from drug smugglers to baseball players with guaranteed contracts (“M.P.A.”) and takes pot shots at rappers living a lifestyle for the cameras (“Crutches, Crosses, Casket”). It isn’t the best he’s been or the most interesting, but he’s never been more colorful or more topical.
But his development extends beyond just his writing. Pusha picks a wide-ranging group of thumping beats from noted rap greats like Kanye West, Q-Tip, Metro Boomin, Sean “Diddy” Combs, and most effectively, Timbaland. This marks the first pairing of the two Virginia legends and they see great results in their first few outings, the Notorious B.I.G.-sampling single “Untouchable” and the percussion-layered “Got Em Covered”, which moves and sounds like a Timbaland beat from the early ‘00s. The latter has a staggering, swaggering step and longtime Clipse cohort Ab-Liva shines with raps that limp into the second halves of phrases, shifting all their weight into the space where bars meet.
The hazy “Keep Dealing” leaves plenty of room for Pusha T and guest Beanie Sigel to push the drug peddler’s equivalent of Tweeting Through It. It’s follow-up, “Retribution”, is a guided tour through a strobing synth tunnel. The standard is set by the hard-hitting intro, which smacks with the same force of Pusha’s most devastating punchlines. Before he even starts rapping, listeners are reintroduced to a familiar voice — the Spanish-speaking drug hypeman from Clipse’s “We Got It For Cheap” intro — and he posits a theory: “Who you wanna be? Drug dealer? Rap nigga? You tryna save the culture? Ay dios mío. You gotta pick one.” It’s supposed to be a denunciation of modern day rappers, saying that towing the line between rapper and trapperg no longer seems possible. But Pusha T might be disproving that before our very eyes.
Essential Tracks: “Intro”, “Got Em Covered”, and “Sunshine”