Thirty-six seconds into Daytona, Pusha-T’s new seven-song album, something becomes abundantly clear: Kanye West still knows how to produce rap music. That wasn’t a given. For the past few months, West has been careening from one baffling PR disaster to the next, giving off the distinct impression that, somewhere along the way, he’s fully and irreparably broken his brain. But that brokenness doesn’t extend to beat construction, which, after all, is the original reason that anyone learned Kanye West’s name in the first place. For the first 35 seconds of Daytona, Pusha raps over a few MPC hiccups and hi-hat tics. Even that is riveting. Pusha’s writing remains as lean and crisp and forbidding as ever — “You don’t take these type of risks, boy / Cuz this boy been throwing the D like Rich Boy” — and his rapping has never lost its fire-eyed intensity. But the 36-second mark is where everything changes. That’s when the sample comes in.
This time around, the sample in question is a towering wave of organ, a pure musical dopamine rush that floods through the track. It’s an absolutely beautiful sound, and it pays off all the tension that the opening built up. That sample comes from Air — not Air, the French retro-electronic group, but Air, the obscure witchcraft-besotted early-’70s heavy rock band from Ypsilanti, Michigan. That’s a song that was completely, utterly forgotten before 2014, when it appeared on a Numero Group compilation called Wayfaring Strangers: Darkscorch Canticles. It’s still a very deep cut, the type of song that a rap producer would only know if that producer was very, very into mining old music for perfect sounds. With Pusha’s voice over it and West’s drums under it, it sounds glorious. Whatever dark paths West has been down in the past few years, he remains capable of a thing like this. That doesn’t make up for everything else — not even close — but it’s still a relief.
Kanye West understands Pusha T. This is crucial. For the past 16 years — Lil Pump’s entire lifetime, pretty much — Pusha has dependably been one of our nastiest rappers, a near-endless source of overstated drug-talk and sneering hauteur. But in the wrong context, Pusha can sound lost. (Think of 2011’s Fear Of God II, on which Pusha attempted to reinvent himself as a generic trap-rapper and came off totally forgettable.) Pusha thrives in the context of spiky minimalism — of strange production experiments that build knife-edge tension through negative space and otherworldly sounds. The authoritarian stomp-claps of “Grindin’,” the hovering-spaceship bloops of “What Happened To That Boy?,” the lonely guitar wails and itchy percussion of “Nosestalgia” — that’s where Pusha’s at home. Daytona is nothing but that.
Daytona, as you’re doubtless aware already, only spans seven songs and only lasts 21 minutes. There’s already a lot of social-media debate over whether we should call Daytona an album or an EP. (Pusha billed Fear Of God II as an EP, and it’s twice as long as Daytona.) To that, I say: Who cares? Daytona is an album if Pusha says it’s an album. In this Rolling Stone interview, Pusha talks about the desire to make something hard and concise, to avoid inflating streaming numbers by cramming it with filler: “We’re respecting your time.” And Daytona actually makes good on that promise. It’s a piece of music that creates its own stark and unforgiving atmosphere, and even if it’s shorter than an episode of Roseanne without commericials, it’s still a complete experience.
That briefness and sparsity has brought the absolute best out of Pusha, a writer who has always tried to say as much as possible without wasting words. As ever, Pusha remains focused on his favorite subjects: on his past life dealing drugs, on the things that he could buy because he was dealing drugs, on his own vertiginous rise out of dealing drugs, on how good he is at rapping (about dealing drugs). But Pusha’s relentless focus doesn’t make him a limited writer. If anything, it’s inspiring how he’s been able to make a full career as an elite rapper out of those few ingredients, like a great painter who only uses the same three colors in every work. He’s capable of telling his whole story in a couple of immaculately worded bars — “Bought hoes Hondas, took care children / Let my pastor build out buildings / Rapped on classics, I been brilliant / Now we blend in, we chameleons” — and he’s still finding new ways to tell that same story, again and again.
There is enormous joy to be had in hearing the way Pusha can describe entire scenes in the space of a single rhyme: “Play amongst the stars like the roof on the Wraith / Get the table next to mine, make our bottle servers race.” His songs get even richer when you catch his references, or when you dig deeper into them. And he forces you to put that work in, to Google what you don’t know. Pusha says, “Where were you when Big Meech brought the tigers in? / Cuz I was busy earning stripes like a tiger’s skin.” And with a tiny bit of research, you learn that, yes, the drug-dealing legend Big Meech really would throw parties with exotic animals, bringing tigers and elephants into nightclubs.
Pusha also understands his own voice, and he knows what he sounds good saying. So one of the best things about Daytona is just hearing Pusha’s word choices, how he lines up sounds: “This ain’t for the conscious, this is for the mud-made monsters.” In that Rolling Stone interview, Pusha talks about the recording sessions with West in Wyoming. He describes how Kanye got into an absolute zone with his beatmaking, and Pusha, who’d scrapped an entire completed album just so that he could follow along with West’s whims, was trying to write his absolute best lyrics just to keep West inspired, to keep the roll going. And that’s how we wind up with stuff like this: “Pop a wheelie, tell the judge to Akinyele / Middle fingers out the Ghost, screamin ‘Makaveli.'”
For all its concision, Daytona isn’t a perfect album. I don’t like Tony Williams’ airy chorus on “Hard Piano” or the moment, on the same song, where Pusha seems to be putting forth the idea that disgraced public figures are victims of some kind of conspiracy: “I won’t let you ruin my dreams or Harvey Weinstein the kid.” It’s not a musical thing, but the cover art, which Pusha says was West’s call, is a shitty attention-grabbing stunt, a tabloid photo of the drug-strewn bathroom of the late Whitney Houston. And then there’s the album’s weakest moment: Kanye West’s clumsy and defensive verse on “What Would Meek Mill Do?” Even there, West gets off a few slick lines: “It won’t feel right till I feel like Phil Knight / Going for six rings like what Phil told Mike / Seven-pill nights, who know what that feel like? / No more hiding the scars, I show ‘em like Seal, right?” But he also puts forth the idea that he’s wearing Make America Great Again hats so that he won’t be stopped for driving while black, which is just confusing.
Pusha has already publicly said that he disagrees completely with West on the Trump stuff. And having actively campaigned for prison reform and for Hillary Clinton’s election with Tim Kaine, he’s got the receipts to prove it. So it’s oddly thrilling to hear how Pusha follows up that Kanye verse. “What Would Meek Mill Do?” transitions with stunning fluidity into “Infrared,” the last song on the album. (The track-to-track transitions here are just perfect, each song leading directly into the next.) And on that last song, though dense and layered and allusive writing, Pusha, by way of rapping about how good he is at rapping, connects his disgust with Trump to his own long-simmering beefs with Drake, Birdman, and Lil Wayne: “The lyrics penning equal to Trump’s winning / The bigger question is how the Russians did it / It was written like Nas but it came from Quentin.” He gently flips Drake’s own lyrics and turns them into indictments, calling back to Birdman’s well-established exploitative business practices and Wayne’s own stalled-out career, depicting himself as a survivor, as someone who’s gotten through it all. And after hearing Daytona it’s hard to disagree. The man is 41 years old, and he’s just given us what might be the year’s hardest rap album.