Pusha T: Daytona review – Kanye ably props up rap’s best drug storyteller
4 out of 5 stars.
by Ben Beaumont-Thomas
Afair bit of rap is a self-fulfilling prophecy: rhyme about how lavish your lifestyle is until your success affords you a lavish lifestyle. You might have to spend all your rent money on Balmain in the beginning but, if you make it, authenticity catches up with you. Pusha T, now nearly two decades into his career both solo and with his brother in Clipse, took a riskier tack: rap about street-level drug dealing and stick at it, even when your lifestyle changes.
There have been times when he’s flirted with poppier fare, even once guesting with Pixie Lott – like 2Chainz with Louisa and Tinie Tempah, it was the rap equivalent of Bill Murray’s character in Lost in Translation doing an ad in Japan because no one would see it back home – and doing dance vocals for Tiga and Steve Angello, but he seems to have had enough of all that: “I don’t tap dance for the crackers and sing Mammy / Cause I’m posed to juggle these flows and nose candy.” What results is a seven-track album with more white powder flying around than the Bake Off tent.
He claims “the only rapper sold more dope than me was Eazy-E” and aligns himself with drug kingpin Big Meech and “a fraternity of drug dealers ringing off, I just happen to be alumni.” “Be more burnt spoon”, he advises at one point (a play on Baltimore’s nickname). In Clipse he once explained that “four and a half will get you in the game / Anything less is just a goddamn shame”, and he’s still keeping an eye on the numbers: “Smell it through the Tupperware / Two can get you four like a double dare.”
This material is handled most elegantly when he uses drug production and dealing as a metaphor for his own influence and creativity on The Games We Play: “Oven’s full of cakes that he bakes / Still spreading paste.” But while his announcement that “this is the drug money your ex-nigga claim he make” is a tangy bit of grandstanding, the money he has made from tours, guest spots, album sales and merchandise – not that kind – means that describing his income as “drug money” is now misleading, not to mention a risky gambit with the IRS.
The fact that Clipse’s one-time manager, Anthony Gonzalez, was jailed for drug dealing means that they were certainly in that environment. Pusha has previously said he “ventured off into that world” as a teenager, but he had a high-profile critic for his recent dealing-focused material in Drake, who subliminally dissed him on Two Birds One Stone, saying “you’ll be tryna sell that story for the rest of your lives”. Pusha responded by saying: “My past is cemented. My past happened. Like slavery happened.”
Does it even matter? His flow does much to smooth over any quibbles around authenticity. He is the absolute opposite of “mumble rap”: Pusha could run a finishing school for those looking to transfer from the dope game to public speaking engagements or voiceover work. Each track is an elocution lesson, his bars enunciated with the almost pedantic menace of a bad cop explaining what he plans to do to you.
The sheer cadence of his voice makes him one of rap’s most satisfying MCs, and so while he may never have a big chart hit, he can also still get away with disses, and is admirably brazen with them. “I’m too rare amongst all of this pink hair” is a shot at the SoundCloud rap crowd, adding later: “Believe in myself and the Coles and Kendricks / Let the sock puppets play in their roles and gimmicks.” Naming Lil Wayne and alluding to his alleged financial woes at the hands of manager Birdman, he raps: “Flash without the fire / Another multi-platinum rapper trapped and can’t retire.”
Aside from the crisply brilliant drug poetry, the production, entirely by Kanye West, is another big draw. This is the roughshod style of cut-and-shut soul samples that characterised Bound 2 and much of Life of Pablo. It also features the MPC-jabbing style that began with Runaway back in 2010, and the big minor chords on Hard Piano help Pusha create a kind of sequel to his excellent New God Flow.
Kanye’s use of Mighty Hannibal’s 1973 funk jam The Truth Shall Make You Free, cutting off his sermon about drug addicts with Pusha’s drug flow on Come Back Baby, is a neat gag, and his own verse on What Would Meek Do is a great Kanye microcosm: attacking critics, mourning the death of his cousin’s son, mentioning police racism, stating his ambition and alluding to drug addiction all in a single minute. “I be thinking: what would Tupac do? / You be thinking what New Kids on the Block do” shows he still has a knack for punchlines, too. But his use of a 2006 photo of Whitney Houston’s bathroom as the cover artwork – the infamous image full of crack paraphernalia – is a misjudgment. It hijacks a specific moment in a specific woman’s story and jams it into Pusha’s: an ugly spectacle.
Drake might disagree, but you can ultimately give Pusha the benefit of the doubt: that this is his life and his truth, and the experience of hauling himself from drug dealer to successful rapper is one that has understandably stayed with him. But there is none of the outward lens that he looked through when recently campaigning for voter registration with Hillary Clinton, or for prison reform; in today’s America, he should find room for topics wider than himself. Maybe he’s been hanging out with Kanye too much