It wasn’t too long ago when critics and consumers alike would collectively clamour and deliberate about Pusha T’s place in hip-hop as a solo artist. Admittedly, Pusha T definitely took a minute to find his footing following the Clipse’s desultory demise, but today, he ranks a little higher in the hearts of those close to the culture. King Push is truly cemented as a modern rap legend due to his time spent rapping alongside his brother, but a more recent increase in fanfare and modern relevance is definitely due largely to his immaculate and influential debut album, My Name Is My Name. It was a record that piggybacked on the sparse, minimalist sonics from boss and collaborator Kanye West’s Yeezus record released just months before, but MNIMN was even more stripped down and bare, all in an effort to make Push’s cutthroat bars the forefront of each and every record. The result was a phenomenal album that had bite and range—records for the club, records for the street, and even reaches towards radio with the Breezy assisted ‘Sweet Serenade’ and the Ma$e emulating, Kelly Rowland collab ’Let Me Love You’. On his latest effort, though, there are no reaches or attempts at broadening musical dimensions. King Push: Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude is not only Pusha T’s darkest album, it’s the King’s most merciless, invincible sounding record he’s ever crafted.
Push has always been able to stagger and swoon with his menacing imagery and truly unparalleled coke-references, but this time around he chooses to pair his always impeccable rhymes with a varied collection of dark, B-side records from A-list producers, whether that be legends like Timbaland, Q-Tip, or Puff, or even modern collaborators like Hudson Mohawke or Boi-1da. Regardless of whose shoulder he taps on, Pusha T finds his pocket regardless and maps his way out of these claustrophobic beats time and time again. On ‘Crutches, Crosses, Caskets’, he terrorizes over an off-kilter brass loop and buzzing bass line courtesy of Puff Daddy himself, running rampant lyrically about pulling the veil that offers the illusion of rappers really being rich and dignified. “I’m the L. Ron Hubbard of the cupboard”, he proclaims, all before the beat deflates and retreats. Retreating is evidently something Pusha T does not do a lot of on this record, though. Rarely is he unsure or even temporarily vulnerable—in fact, more often than not he’s scoffing at his peers and saying his piece about each and every chink in the armour of the culture. ‘M.F.T.R’ explores a similar ideology, as Pusha T and The-Dream continue to unravel the dysfunction and realities behind Cash Money Records and the troubled relationship between Birdman and Lil Wayne. There was a time when Pusha T would speak on these two subliminally and under-the-radar, but now given the recent developments in the YMCMB episodes, Push is exclaiming his displeasure as repeated “I-told-you-so’s”.
Pusha T does deviate from the hyper-flexing and egomaniacal content on occasion, with tracks like ‘Sunshine’ featuring Jill Scott and ‘M.P.A.’ being poignant examples. The former concludes the album and offers a rare, explicitly conscious side of Pusha T accounting for the perils and tribulations faced by his race as a whole. It’s an exceptionally beautiful song that bleeds into areas thematically that are typically foreign for Push, as rarely does he attempt to speak for anybody but himself. The latter is a song with an abbreviation that spells out money, pussy, alcohol—dedicated to the three heaviest vices that plague a lifestyle like Pusha T’s. Enlisted are friends Kanye West, The-Dream, and A$AP Rocky who all add different vocal layers to the serene hook. The beat, though, might be the most interesting component, being that it is a collaborative effort between J.Cole and Kanye West. It’s musicality doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, but it’s method of fusing current textures to deliver such a unique groove is admirable.
As always, though, Pusha T is most poignant and austere over the most looped, hollow beats. Album standout ‘Untouchable’ an eerie slapper pieced together by Timbaland. The first thing that jumps out is the larger than life Biggie sample, but the reversed piano chords that slowly buzz and pass while a string melody appears and vanishes on every other bar is brilliantly simplistic. Push again throws his darts at the Cash Money guys, with stabs like “Still wishing on a star / The last one to find out that Baby owns the cars” meant to surely bruise a couple egos from that camp. This breed of supreme confidence is evident from jump, as the Metro Boomin produced ‘Intro’ sees the album start with Push flaunting his ability to float over just about any beat with the sharp-tongued raps still intact. This truly seems to be his sole focus with this record, too—he’s either passing off hook duties to a friend, letting a sample speak, or repeating a phrase a couple times over and letting that do the work (see the Ab-Liva flanked ‘Got Em Covered’, or the Q-Tip produced ‘F.I.F.A’). Unlike his inaugural solo effort, he’s not trying to be anything he’s not, or overtly ambitious in the slightest sense. Push is playing into his strengths and making his legendary collaborators convert to the dark side with him.
That sentiment stretches to the album’s narrative, too. It might sonically be his darkest delivery, but Pusha T is never vulnerable or even at-risk of the climate around him. Rather, he is absolutely revelling in the most twisted, gruesome details of his past, using his credibility as poker chips that the rest of the culture just doesn’t have. Very few rappers or artists in general are blessed with this level of conviction, as when Push says something, you don’t doubt him for a second. It’s the type of authentic fervour that allows this kingpin-story of his to check out at every instance, and ultimately allow him to standout from each and every other rapper associating themselves with such a lifestyle. The result is Pusha T coming across as the most credible, menacing rapper in the world right now, and with the constant re-inventive, self-challenging nature of Push and his seemingly familiar story, maybe it’s time we admit that Pusha T is the most technically sound MC breathing.