In 2016 I had the pleasure of an early morning phone call with Pusha T to discuss his forthcoming album ‘King Push’ for a Clash cover story. He’d just hit the gym and was preparing to hit the studio to put the finishing touches on his highly anticipated new LP: he shared plans to drop a huge radio single, and told us about studio sessions he’d been putting in with Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Mike WiLL Made-It, DJ Dahi and Frank Dukes - and then it never materialised.
If his new album - which is now called ‘DAYTONA’ - teaches us anything, it’s that none of that matters. Since his days as one half of The Clipse to his current role as president of G.O.O.D Music, Pusha T has built himself a career solid enough to be able to scrap everything, go back to the drawing board (likely more than once) over two years, then strike by surprise, and his audience are going to be ready for it.
It’s unlikely that any of the music he told us about that day has made its way onto ‘DAYTONA’, but it’s clear that his motive remains the same: “The goal never goes further than just to make the greatest music possible,” he told us. “I just give you the best rap albums that I can give you… I’m here to show you that what it is that I do, this is timeless. I want people to really understand that I am of the culture.”
From the opening track it’s obvious that Pusha has taken an about turn from the plan that had involved a “monster single” that was “specifically targeted at radio”. ‘If You Know You Know’ sets up an elitist rap album targeted at those who came up analysing bars and studying liner notes. Before the beat even fully kicks in, Push has already referenced Pink Floyd, De La Soul, ’N***as In Paris’ producer Hit-Boy and Rich Boy’s 2006 hit ‘Throw Some D’s’, he’s also alluded to past crimes he’s still evading and takes a shot at fraud rappers tripping themselves up with false figures. As Rick Ross puts it on ‘Hard Piano’, “This is for the sneaker hoarders and coke snorters”: hip-hop might have become pop culture, but this album isn’t intended for everyone.
Recorded betweens studio sessions in Utah and Wyoming, ‘DAYTONA’ is the first in a series of five albums produced by Kanye West, each of which is expected to be seven songs in length - to follow are a Kanye solo album, his Kids See Ghost album with KiD CuDi and new records from Nas and Teyana Taylor. While his Twitter feed might be anxiety-inducing right now, it’s still great to hear Kanye in his element here, cutting up samples and demonstrating his understanding of what fans - himself included - love about the artists he’s working with.
In the early hours of Thursday morning, Kanye was still making last minute changes. He reportedly swapped the already approved album artwork for a $85,000 image of Whitney Houston’s bathroom at 1AM, and an earlier version of the tracklist included a now absent track called ‘Sociopath’. These kind of edits weren’t honoured on Pusha’s 12-track solo debut ‘My Name Is My Name’, which Kanye had wanted to trim down further, but ‘DAYTONA’ suggests that maybe they should have been. While ‘My Name Is My Name’ was a great album, this is a masterclass in design: in contrast to the 20+ track albums of this streaming era, Kanye’s ruthless editing ensures every song, every bar and every sample have purpose.
Closing track ‘Infared’ finds Pusha reflecting on his position “at the mercy of a game where the code’s missing.” He reminds us that Will Smith won the first Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance, while Jay-Z wasn’t recognised until he sampled Annie on his third album ‘Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life’. He also revisits a couple of past beefs: a subliminal shot at Drake has already been grabbing headlines, and he returns to the subject of Lil Wayne’s unfavourable label situation with Baby which he’d previously addressed on ‘Exodus 23:1’ at the height of his feud with the New Orleans rapper. The track underlines Pusha’s place in culture, accepting his place as a rapper’s rapper, leaving his manager to follow sales figures while he focusses on the art, “‘cos I’m supposed to juggle these flows and nose candy.” He’s chosen his side of the fence, and he’s comfortable maintaining the purity of Pusha T, rather than diluting his product for trends and accolades.
It’s difficult to make music feel exclusive when we can access millions of songs from our phones for a £10 subscription. For this generation streetwear and sneaker drops have replaced the source of excitement that record stores once did, but Pusha manages to bring back that feeling through by trading cultural capital through his lyrics: if you’re in on the punchline then you feel part of the movement, and if not then you’re going to go away and do some digging to brush up on your rap references and cocaine folklore.
Like the Rolex from which it takes its name, ‘DAYTONA’ is primarily concerned with time and luxury. The three years it’s taken Pusha to deliver a twenty-one minute album is unaffordable to most rappers. By staying small, focussed and concise here, he makes the biggest statement of his solo career so far - going against the excess and all-you-can-eat approach that’s trapping the rest of the game is truly a stunt. Pusha T is timeless.
Words: Grant Brydon
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