Longevity is an elusive feat in hip-hop. Some artists gain it by reinventing themselves, allowing fans to marvel at the growth of their sound and content. But others achieve longevity through refinement. They don't deviate from fans' expectations, but instead they sharpen the aspects of their music that earned them fans in the first place. An emcee that lives out this approach is Pusha T and the latest example is his new album DAYTONA—an unadulterated display of Pusha's artistry.
From his days as part of Clipse to his career as a solo artist, Pusha has centered his music on his past as a drug dealer. Over time, the amount of conceit and luxury in his music has grown. Ric Flair is one of his muses and it often sounds like Pusha channels the wrestling legend during his boasts. But the theatrics in his persona don't undercut the authenticity of his content. Pusha's rhymes are filled with memories and street ethics that can only come from someone who's battle-tested.
There are nuances to Pusha's music, but many people only recognize him as the guy who makes cocaine punchlines. Pusha is aware of the stigma and chooses to embrace it, as evidenced by the cover of DAYTONA. The album art is a photo of Whitney Houston's damaged bathroom, a symbol of the late singer's struggle with drug addiction. The cover is a tasteless choice, exploiting the trials of someone who has passed on. Still in all, it reiterates the sentiment of a past album title from Pusha. His name is his name, and we all know what content will be found in his music.
Pusha reaffirms his identity on the album's first song, "If You Know You Know." He rhymes, "A rapper turned trapper can't morph into us / But a trapper turned rapper can morph into Puff / Dance contest for the smokers / I predict snow, Al Roker (if you know, you know) / I only ever looked up to Sosa / You all get a bird, this n***a Oprah." Beyond the boasts and cocaine references, Pusha asserts that experience lends more credence to his music than the music of other street-oriented rappers.
This credibility of his was questioned by Drake in 2016 on "Two Birds, One Stone." He suggested that Pusha exaggerates his past and takes cues from crime dramas. The tension between the two rappers is playing out as I type this review, but it's been brewing for years and Pusha makes note of that at the start of DAYTONA. Yet Pusha doesn't seem pressured to prove that he is the man he's presented himself as for years. Instead, he displays more self-assurance than at any other point in his career.
Pusha is at his most boastful on the following song, titled "The Games We Play." He raps over a beat that features guitar play suitable for a scene in the movie Desperado. Fittingly, Pusha displays the bravado of an outlaw as he addresses his rivals. He says, "Stood on every couch, in the A at the black party / No jewelry on, but you richer than everybody / You laugh a little louder, the DJ say your name a little prouder / And we don't need a globe to show you the world is ours."
The song is ego-driven, but that doesn't stop Pusha from acknowledging some of his inspirations. He cites Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, N.W.A and The LOX as influences. The impact of the Wu-Tang legends shows the most on DAYTONA, as Pusha carries on the tradition of mafioso rap that Raekwon and Ghostface helped establish in the '90s.
If you need proof, look no further than the song "Hard Piano." It features Rick Ross, another emcee that holds the image of a made man. Ross' authenticity has been compromised in the past, but artistically he is a worthy counterpart for Pusha. On the song, the two rap with poise and cadence that give them more presence than a lot of their peers. Ross and Pusha’s verses seem less like rappers in a booth and more like kingpins reflecting on a penthouse balcony.
The atmosphere built by Pusha and Ross' rhymes is reinforced by Kanye West's production—a statement that remains true throughout DAYTONA since Kanye is the lone producer on the album. The marriage between Kanye's beats and Pusha's rhymes is at its strongest on "Santeria." The track is a haunting cut that finds Pusha reflecting on the murder of his road manager De'Von Pickett. As Pusha cycles through feelings of sorrow and menace, so does the instrumentation thanks to a number of beat switches.
"Santeria" highlights a moment of vulnerability for Pusha. Yet by the end of the song, Pusha has been driven to hostility and this sentiment carries over to the album's closer, "Infrared." The song finds him taking aim at three long-time targets of his: Drake, Lil Wayne and Birdman. Pusha sarcastically laments the downturn in Wayne's career and jabs at Drake for having some of his rhymes written by Quentin Miller. There's a venom to Pusha's words and delivery that few emcees can match. Drake responded impressively with "Duppy Freestyle," but he had little choice after Pusha equated him to "sock puppets" playing out a gimmick.
In a 2015 Rolling Stone interview, Pusha referred to himself as "the last rap superhero." But he's much more of a villain on songs like "Infrared," as he takes joy in the plight of his opponents. Pusha is known for his sinister approach to the rap game and vivid description of the drug game. With this in mind, he captures the essence of his musical identity on DAYTONA.
Yet, he also deprives the album of introspective moments aside from "Santeria." DAYTONA lacks songs like "S.N.I.T.C.H." and "Sunshine" that add depth to Pusha's music. As a result, Pusha offers an album that appeases fans' hope for razor sharp bars, but will leave some listeners in search of his growth.
Notable Tracks: “The Games We Play” | “Hard Piano” | “Infrared” | “Santeria”