As one half of Clipse, Pusha T - together with his brother Malice - enjoyed a sterling run in the 2000s, rolling out at least two bona fide classic albums (2002’s ‘Lord Willin’’ and 2006’s ‘Hell Hath No Fury’) and a series of landmark singles that helped define rap during that decade. On the flipside, Pusha’s post-Clipse solo career has proved an altogether more patchy and frustrating affair. His lucid raps detailing the street pharmaceutical trade he grew up around have often been hamstrung by lumpen, indifferent beats - a step backwards from The Neptunes’ pioneering productions that underpinned Clipse’s work. Meanwhile, in the absence of his brother and partner-in-rhyme Malice, Pusha has frequently paired up with a broad sweep of rappers and singers of varying quality, which has ultimately left his recent work lacking focus and cohesion.
2013’s ‘My Name Is My Name’ - his first full-length solo studio LP following a run of hot-and-cold mixtape projects - may have drawn critical acclaim, but in the cold light of the day it remains an unbalanced muddle, with bona fide bangers like the Kendrick Lamar collabo ‘Nosetalgia’ (which included that Ivan Drago line) sitting awkwardly next to feeble pop concessions such as ‘Let Me Love You’, a Kelly Rowland-featuring career nadir for 'Push’.
All of which has sadly bolstered the perception that the post-Clipse Pusha T has ended up little more than a dull Kanye weed carrier, relegated to presiding over the G.O.O.D. Music label's rather average output while remaining unsure of his own musical direction.
That being said, the renowned spitter from Virginia (“where ain’t shit to do but cook”) remains a going concern. And, put bluntly, ‘Darkest Before Dawn’ (designed as a resolutely hardcore prelude to next spring’s formal studio LP ‘King Push’) impressively demonstrates just what he’s capable of when seemingly unencumbered by the attendant pressure of a looming marquee release.
Pusha’s request that the producers he enlisted to man the boards - including Timbaland, Q-Tip, Kanye, Metro Boomin and Sean “Puffy” Combs - bring their darkest sound is evident from the off. Coming flying out of the blocks, he delivers a series of caustic barbs towards his detractors on the Timbaland-helmed ‘Untouchable’, an eerie number whose chorus is built from a Notorious BIG vocal sample sliced from Pudgee Tha Phat Bastard’s 1995 single ‘Think Big’.
Pusha ups the intensity even further on the magnificent ‘M.F.T.R.’ - which is propelled by an irresistible piano loop wrapped around a pounding drum beat - as he takes aim at rival rappers who don’t have their money right, name-checks old school hip-hop clothing designer Dapper Dan and declares himself the “Kim Jong of the crack song”.
Elsewhere, Q-Tip dabbles in rock on ‘F.I.F.A.’, which sees Pusha neatly carve out yet more pop culture comparisons in his crime rhymes, while ‘Crutches, Crosses, Caskets’ sees Puffy - of all people! - serve up a skewed, woozy backdrop most unlike the acknowledged output of the Bad Boy Entertainment figurehead.
Indeed, given Pusha T has so often struggled to reconcile his roughcast crack-themed reality raps with the commercial realities of hip-hop in the 2010s, it makes sense to draft in someone like P. Diddy, whose storied New York label mastered the delicate balance between the streets and the radio during its late ‘90s peak, making stars out of the Notorious BIG, The Lox and Ma$e.
The Bad Boy connection continues on the brilliant ‘Keep Dealing’, where Pusha brands himself the “the last cocaine superhero - I got the cape on to cover kilos” over a dense, slow-roller supplied by Nashiem Myrick. Myrick, one of Puffy’s in-house team of hitmakers at Bad Boy during the label’s halcyon days, throws a sonic curveball, a modern noir backdrop which sounds snatched straight out of El-P’s bag of sonic tricks during the early days of Cannibal Ox. Meanwhile, Philly hard rock Beanie Sigel - “reporting live from the project benches” - lends an extra layer of menace to proceedings, delivering his guest verse in a noticeably rougher, raspier tone than in his earlier days, his voice strikingly altered since he had an operation to remove a lung following a shooting.
Ultimately, then, it’s the way in which Pusha eschews the awkward pop overtures of his previous solo output and concentrates squarely on rapping - examining the consequences of the corner life and the dark side of success over brooding production - which makes ‘Darkest Before Dawn’ a success. A remarkable return to form by one of rap’s finest wordsmiths, it’s Pusha’s most focused and cohesive solo effort to date, and one of hip-hop’s strongest long-players of 2015. Here’s hoping he can maintain this momentum.
Words: Hugh Leask
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