Pusha T: Daytona
By Jordan Pytosh
In a triumphant and unexpected comeback, hip hop veteran and G.O.O.D. Music artist Pusha T released his long-awaited ‘King Push’ project as the gritty album, Daytona. The album's controversial cover, a picture of Whitney Houston's bathroom after her death, already differentiates the project form Pusha T's other work, suggesting an edgier approach to the drug-heavy subject matter that often characterizes his music. In addition to the provocative cover, the album is also produced entirely by Kanye West, whose recent, politically charged statements have sparked their own explosion of controversy. Paralleling many of the lyrical motifs and musical arrangements of Jay Z’s 4:44, the aggressive, grown-up rap of Daytona has already become one of this year’s most compelling musical projects in a mere seven tracks.
Pusha T's previous two albums, My Name is My Name and King Push - Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude brought Pusha T into the limelight, and he took advantage of the attention he garnered post-Clipse to expand his mystique with the support of Kanye West. He appeared on Kanye's monolithic masterpiece My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy twice, with egoist flair on tracks “So Appalled” and “Runaway.” Across these various projects, Pusha T has proven himself to be a compelling figure in hip hop thanks to his consistently solid lyricism, which manages to be simultaneously cold and coded. In that sense, his ‘drug dealer’ persona is more or less the same one that all rappers seem eager to adorn, but Pusha uses his genuine past and identity to substantiate his ego with lived experience.
At the onset of Daytona, the listener is thrust into the leadoff track “If You Know You Know,” which features a heavy and fascinatingly odd sample from a 1972 prog rock record by Air called “Twelve O’Clock Satanial.” Kanye’s sample choice establishes the gritty tone of the album that is further explored throughout the remaining six tracks. The track's title is a reference to how Pusha T's experiences as a drug dealer place him in a different league of hip hop based on authenticity as opposed to empty posturing. The line “a trapper turned rapper can’t morph into us” is a notable example of how Pusha uses his experiences and lyrical power to acerbically criticize the shortcomings of the younger rap generation. This parallels Jay-Z's attitude on last year's 4:44, and reflects Pusha T's serious dedication to his art form. It is fascinating to see Push focused on this side of rap.
The next track, “The Games We Play” builds a hard-hitting funk backdrop around a classic soul sample. The song celebrates Pusha T's success and influences. Notably, Pusha T references "The Purple Tape" - a common name for Raekwon's classic Only Built 4 Cuban Linx - which is an album that explores fame and drug dealing as well as the intersection between the two. Specifically, "Rainy Dayz," a song off the aforementioned Raekwon album featuring Ghostface Killah and name-dropped by Pusha T on this track, explores this theme in full. It examines the decline of the projects and effects of the crack epidemic in conjunction with the duo’s drug exploits. On "The Games We Play" Pusha T is remaking this same kind of song based on his own history and framed through his own, more mature viewpoint.
Pusha T’s verse on the next track, “Hard Piano” continues to paint himself as a wartorn, drug-dealing hip-hop artist who has already earned his place in the rap canon. The Charles Wright sample bleeds into Push's acidic rhymes, which prop himself up in comparison to the new breed of hip-hop artists sporting "pink hair." He seeks to set himself apart from the SoundCloud rappers currently rising to prominence by suggesting that his wealth and success were the product of genuine labor and struggle. Ironically, Pusha T shares the track with Rick Ross, who has previously been outed as a fake drug dealer. But, perhaps wisely, Ross’s verse mostly avoids Pusha's subject matter. Instead, he peppers his verse with healthy doses of self-awareness, with lines like "watchin' my success for some is bittersweet" hinting at his own questionable credentials, while maintaining a healthy dose of ego throughout.
As somewhat of a thematic intermission, the creative sonic structuring and lyrical braggadocio of “Come Back Baby” stand out. Most notably, on the production side, the song alternates between a chilling, minimalist sample employed during the track's verses and an upbeat, encouraging sample used in its chorus. This song is definitely more confrontational than the previous portion of the album, which is a refreshing reminder of how amazingly grimy and harsh Pusha T can be. His spitting is reminiscent of his work with Clipse, with a delivery so aggressive you almost feel compelled to listen to the rapper's clever and insightful wordplay.
The next track “Santeria” injects the album with hints of psychedelia, thanks to the Lil Kim sample that Kanye employs. The track's Spanish title, interlude, and focus on spirituality fascinatingly capture the tension between spirituality and drug culture that characterizes much of hip hop. On "Santeria," Pusha T makes use of extremely clever wordplay to combine his braggadocio with sober reflections on the often misguided motivations behind drug use. The interlude by 070 Shake is ethereal as it leads into the track's final part, where Pusha T references his former road manager, De’Von Pickett, in a nice short addendum to all the dedicatory statements the rapper has already addressed to his deceased friend.
In the following track, "What Would Meek Do?" Pusha T is joined by Kanye West as each rapper addresses their current controversial situations in clever ways. As the Yes sample fades into the beat, Pusha talks of his current situation in the game. He views himself as a top five legend that flaunts wealth, but one that does not get enough respect amongst the current hip hop audience. Push also describes himself as a harder worker with a darker past than his competition, noting how the “proof’s in the bricks” near the end of his first verse. Then Kanye enters and addresses several contentious points, including his decision to use a surrogate for his third child, his adoption of the MAGA hat, and his dedication to openly displaying his thoughts and emotions to the world. Kanye then drops out of the song, leaving the listener with just memories his calm and concise verse, almost as a corrective to the scatterbrained rants he is often prone to in interview settings.
Finally, Pusha T opens a can of worms with the album's concluding track, "Infrared," a song that spawned a series of diss tracks that are nothing short of spectacular. Many a rapper has challenged Drake’s seemingly untouchable status in the rap game, but the Canadian rapper has almost always remained immune to any attempted rap beef. The efforts of Meek Mill, Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, and Joe Budden, as well as those of a few others have proven inadequate. But the shots aimed at Drake on "Infrared" cut deep. The song has both light and hard-hitting jabs, and, although Pusha offers commentary on the rap game overall, it is clear that Drake is his main target. After the release of Daytona, Drake promptly responded to Pusha T's disses with the equally brilliant “Duppy Freestyle,” and much of the hip hop community believed that Pusha was destined to join the ranks of the other rappers who failed to topple Drake. But Pusha T's next move, the vicious and unapologetic track “The Story of Adidon,” proved them wrong. As an extension of Daytona, “The Story of Adidon” invoked old school diss tracks that pull no punches, truly going for the neck of the artist in question. In response to Drake’s jabs at his fiancé and his drug dealing past, Pusha T dives into Drake's personal life, criticizing his entire persona and celebrity. Though not officially a part of Daytona, "The Story of Adidon" serves as a powerful conclusion to this episode of King Push's impressive history. If the seven songs on this album and the associated diss track are any indication of where Pusha T is headed next, we have a lot more incredible music to look forward to.