March 9, 2011

Abe Beame is great in the kitchen like Corning cookware.

Several months ago, Pusha T, one half of Virginia rap duo The Clipse, signed to G.O.O.D. music. The move triggered a level of breathless excitement unseen since the great dynasty building signings of Rocafella and G-Unit a decade ago. It created a narrative familiar to any sports fan: veteran star joins stacked squad in search of championship. Looking at the union on paper ostensibly suggests classic results. But like the Blood Money boys and the long-shelved Mash Out Posse, my worry is that Pusha will succumb to a similarly mediocre fate, and the writing has been on the wall for sometime.

Pusha’s attention grabbing verses on the G.O.O.D. Friday tracks were mostly aimless, but they worked because they were essentially mixtape songs, and received the attention they did for their fantasy sports novelty. He fouled off pitches in much the same way on his first solo leak, “My God”, off his coming Fear of God mixtape. A new freestyle over Kanye’s “Lost in the World” is equally disheartening, with Pusha sounding awkward at best, making Kanyesque goofy pop culture references. (“The Situation”? Really?)

It’s a problem that dates back to the rote materialism of Hell Hath No Fury, but one that really started to become salient in December of 2009, when the Clipse released their third major label studio album, Til The Casket Drops. Featuring two lead singles from the Neptunes and another with a guest verse from Kanye West, the album received the typical wave of critical praise you can expect from a Clipse release. But almost a year later, the album is nowhere near gold and will likely never get there. Rather than take listeners to task for ignoring (and not paying for) good music, I’ll just say it: Til The Casket Drops wasn’t very good, and Pusha T shoulders significant blame for its mediocrity.

The problems stem from the hollowness and general lack of spark at the core of their recent work. Till The Casket Drops commences with mission statement “Freedom”, a song that demonstrates the impossible situation Malice and Pusha currently find themselves in. Like Jay-Z on Kingdom Come, Pusha is forcing up shots, addressing imagined critics who want to hear more introspective, personal rhymes, which he interprets as rapping about his label situation, meeting the demands of his fan base and worst of all, self-aware commentary about his writing and what it’s achieving AS he’s delivering it. In doing so, Pusha exposes himself, and serves as a cautionary tale to any MC looking to pursue the “Fame Rap” trend. Both Kanye and Drake, Fame Rap’s most visible proponents, have frequently discussed their lives as famous rappers, lacing their tales of high-life with a sense of woe and emptiness that humanizes them, and makes their themes universal.

Pusha has worn out crack as a theme, but rather than offering insight into the other side, he continually bemoans the laundry list of obstacles that have prevented him from garnering the mainstream success he apparently wants badly. What’s more damning is Pusha does this with the same brazen declarations and passionate displays that he utilized so effectively earlier in his career. He’s has taken the intensity he once used as a crack rapper and applied it to music, but a middling rapper trying to get his big break just isn’t as compelling as a hustler trying to feed his family, as he struggles with destroying his community in the process.

I’m not saying there aren’t rappers who can’t use the word “blogger” in verse convincingly, but Pusha isn’t one of them. The other freestyle just released in tandem with “Lost in the World”, “Cook it down” seems determined to prove this point. The first verse finds Pusha in vintage Lord Willin form, a detail heavy 90s reminisce, torn between triumphant and melancholic but somehow comfortable in that space. The second verse drags, demanding a king’s ransom from Lyor Cohen for his “monologues.”

This isn’t to say Pusha’s recent track record on G.O.O.D. is completely without success. “Runaway,” saw Pusha out of his normal comfort zone, delivering his finest work since Hell Hath No Fury. His performance worked because the song was thematically rigid. Pusha had one of rap’s finest coaches in his ear as he wrote, helping to coax the greatness out of him. What it suggests is that Pusha never really lost his skill as a writer, but rather he’s lost his artistic vision–unsure who to please to attain the success he’s looking for. The self-aware victim of the paradox of being told he’s great by everyone except the Soundscan charts.

The signs are troubling to consider. Should Kanye sustain interest in their next project, behind the boards and as its creative consultant, there’s a chance Pusha’s solo debut could realize his vast potential. Otherwise, we’d be naïve to hope for anything but a lukewarm single or two, an avalanche of clueless critical praise by herd-influenced writers afraid to suggest the hustler wears no Bapes. And of course, lackluster album sales, as a once great rapper continues to realize diminishing returns.

Download:
MP3: Pusha T-“My God”
MP3: Pusha T-“Lost in the World”

MP3: Pusha T-“Cook It Down”