Donald Trump can’t be bought. Among people who honestly thing Donald Trump should be our next president, that point comes up over and over. He’s a mega-billionaire, so the corporate interests that have been driving Republican party politics don’t apply to him. He’s free to say, for instance, that we shouldn’t allow Muslims into the country, and nobody can exert enough pressure on him to get him to recant. In practice, that means an insane blowhard egotist, someone who doubles down on insanity anytime he’s caught lying, is possibly the most important person in next year’s presidential election. But you can understand the seductive power there: He is a man beholden to nobody, and that makes him able to pursue his own truth, false and absurd though that truth may be. Throughout his career, Pusha T has advanced a similar narrative. To hear Pusha tell it, he doesn’t need rap fame. It’s irrelevant to him. When Jive Records put Clipse, his duo with his brother, on the shelf for years even after they made a gold-selling album, it didn’t matter. They were pissed off about it, but they were fine: “Ain’t spent one rap dollar in three years, holler.” According to Pusha’s own mythology, he’s made so much money from the drug trade — he continues to make so much money from the drug trade — that he doesn’t have to chase crossover rap money. He’s free to pursue his own truth, and that truth involves dense and convoluted shit-talk about the drug trade. And since Pusha T is one of our greatest rappers, the result works out a whole lot better than that whole Trump campaign situation.
There are holes in Pusha T’s story. He has, from time to time, chased crossover money. After the generational landmark “Grindin’,” Clipse’s second single was a straight-up party song, and their third single was a rap&B relationship track with Faith Evans. Clipse’s best-ever song, by my reckoning, wasn’t even their own; it was “What Happened To That Boy,” a collaboration with Birdman — a rapper who, Pusha has claimed again and again — Pusha does not respect. Pusha rapped on Justin Timberlake’s first solo single. He’s rapped on two different VMA broadcasts. These days, he regularly appears on dance tracks. If you’re a straight-up rap purist who’s only interested in broadcasting your realness upon the world, you maybe don’t make any of those moves. But every song I just mentioned is a great song, the Timberlake track very much included. And even as he’s made those moves, Pusha has driven his own aesthetic toward something dark and cold and heavy. Maybe he hasn’t turned away from pop success. Maybe the rap world has moved in ways that make a pop-successful Pusha T seem like an impossible thing. But Pusha has moved himself into a position where he can make albums of uncommon, uncompromising severity — albums like Darkest Before Dawn.
Darkest Before Dawn is 10 songs long, and it’s barely half an hour. There is no fat on it anywhere. Pusha barely even bothers with choruses. When they do appear, he outsources them, whether to a guest or a Biggie sample. The R&B singers who show up on the album don’t get chances to emote. Instead, they’re there for terse, flinty choruses; I love the way Jill Scott impersonates Billie Holiday on the closing “Sunshine.” “M.P.A.” has feature credits for The-Dream, A$AP Rocky, and Kanye West, but all of them are only barely on it, and none of them gets a verse. Instead, there are only two real guest-rappers on the whole album. One is Ab-Liva, Pusha’s old Re-Up Gang crewmate and one of the more underrated rappers to come along in the past decade. Liva mostly works as a Kanye West ghostwriter these days, but it’s great to hear his nimble rasp return on the skittery, Timbaland-produced “Got ‘Em Covered.” And the other guest is wheezing Philadelphia hardcore legend Beanie Sigel, sounding like he was carved out of granite and rapping on a Kanye West beat for the first time since, unless I’m forgetting something, the 2002 Scarface classic “Guess Who’s Back.”
Soundwise, this is bleak, spacious, rainswept rap music. The roster of producers is just mindboggling. Timbaland does three tracks, and his tingly, scraped-out circa-2000 sound has been missing for a long time. Tim’s work on Empire has been so bad that I honestly wouldn’t have believed him capable of music as heavy and potent as this anymore. But he’s only the beginning. On opening track “Intro,” Kanye, Mike Dean, Travi$ Scott, and Metro Boomin all get production credits. Q-Tip does a track. Diddy does a track. J. Cole co-produced “M.P.A.” with West, and it’s amazing how good Cole’s plangent knock sounds when it doesn’t have J. Cole rapping on it. But despite all the different producers, the sound here is completely cohesive. It’s icy and mean, and it exists entirely to highlight Pusha’s voice. So many important people worked on this album, but all of them are total supporting players. This is a one-man show.
And with all this foreboding atmosphere around him, Pusha gets sneerier and more precise than ever before. A few weeks ago, the critic Jordan Sargent wrote on Twitter that Pusha was rapping like “a clenched butt,” and I get what he means. There was never a whole lot of joy in Pusha’s rapping, but there used to be a certain sense of exhilaration in it. He was finding all these fun new ways to talk about the coke-dealer life, and he sounded drunk on his own eloquence. One of my most vivid live-music memories was seeing Clipse and the Re-Up Gang at New York’s Knitting Factory, not long after the eternally great We Got It 4 Cheap, Vol. 2 mixtape came out and made the rounds. Everyone on that stage was happy to be there, rapping for a crammed-in and devoted group of internet fans who knew every word and who the group was only just learning even existed. But Pusha looked like a man possessed, utterly amped to be rapping in front of an audience that got what he was doing.
On Darkest Before Dawn, that exhilaration is gone. Pusha’s been rapping about the same things for nearly a decade and a half, and his metaphors are getting a little more tortured. (“L. Ron Hubbard of the cupboard” sounds cool and all, but it’s no “grand wizard of the almighty blizzard.”) More to the point, he’s rapping slower and emphasizing every word, making sure you can make out all the cleverness in his convoluted turns of phrase: “Rappers is victimized at an all-time high / But not I, you pop niggas thought I let it fly / I’m Yasiel Puig / I’m in another league.” That’s a layered line, and it keeps going from there. It never sounds off-the-cuff. Instead, it sounds meticulously planned-out, almost clinical. But the style works for Pusha. His lines don’t sneak up on you the same way they once did, but you can still absolutely get lost in his cleverness, especially when the music is arranged in ways that put his voice front-and-center like this.
When we talk about rap purism, we’re usually talking about stuff that sounds like New York in the mid-’90s, and Pusha certainly has a fondness for that. But Pusha is a different type of rap purist. On Darkest Before Dawn, he strips away all ideas of melody and warmth and friendliness. Instead, he’s made something as stark and unrelenting, in its own way, as Kanye West’s Yeezus. Kanye recently made Pusha the president of his G.O.O.D. Music label, and it’s anyone’s guess what that really means. But it seems a lot more likely that Pusha’s new position allowed him to throw something this stark and nasty out into the marketplace — especially if you believe what Pusha says again and again, that his drug wealth means he doesn’t have to debase himself to appeal to crossover audiences. And if Pusha’s now ascended to the point where he can release solo albums like this at will, that’s good for all of us. I don’t know how he’s finding ways to distill the sound of his pointed nastiness even more, but he’s done it. Nobody else could’ve made an album like it.
Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude is out 12/18 on G.O.O.D. Music.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Baroness’ fiery, melodic, impressive return Purple.
• Ennio Morricone’s score to Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.
• Eluvium’s Life Through Bombardment Vol. 2 box set.