Courtesy of Maxwell Schiano and FACT Magazine
Pusha T has something to prove. Take “Untouchable,” the Timbo-produced first single on Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude, where he counters his friend Mu’s worries about how Push was missing out on that club money by reminding him that a) he just got a million from Adidas, b) he is now the President of GOOD Music, and c) he is cashing in on SHITLOADS of movie and tv-licensing guap. One can’t help but feel like Mu—whoever you are—kinda struck a nerve.
Not being exactly where you are supposed to be has been a constant throughout Pusha’s career, but he’s probably never been as comfortable as he is today. And yet, the songs compiled on Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude—more a jazzed up mixtape than an album, which frankly says nothing about its quality—are carried by the algebra of survival tactics and the fear of losing it all again. Luckily, this sense of tension seems to unleash effects similar to the blow-fueled ignorance that made the brothers Thornton the most effortlessly stylish siblings in the wider Virginia area circa 2002.
Confronted with so much fatalistic confidence, it’s easy to forget that times were different for Push right after Hell Hath No Fury. Reaching their creative peak with the same album whose sales must have gotten half the Jive-A&R-staff fired, Clipse seemed on a downward spiral to mid-tier obscurity. You know the story. The casket dropped, Malice turned towards christianity, and Push started lending his supreme talents to, well, lesser talents for a string of lukewarm 16s. Even linking up with Ye’s GOOD Music camp could have easily led to a future as the golden bench player on a franchise solely revolving around one larger-than-life character.
Instead, Push carved himself a new niche in a changing environment. His self-identification as the prime lyricist between the mumbling ”kings of the Youtube” suits him well, especially when performed over bare-naked beats from the b-side vaults of Timbaland, Puffy, Q-Tip, and Kanye.
It’s needless to point out that Push’s Coke Rap 3.0 is no longer a reliable window into the import-export business of Virgina Beach. The genre Clipse probably did not get off the ground, but helped transform in the most flossy (and most easily appropriated) way, now serves Push as a mere linguistic universe, providing countless options for powder, weight, and Spanish family name-puns to deliver his tales of rise and fall and rise again. A safe space in which petty claims of authenticity are nonchalantly brushed away with a snort sound and the Ric Flair *whoo*.
In a way, Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude is so gloriously bleak, it makes you worry about the sound of the supposed magnum opus King Push. Worst case scenario, this short set of gems is the weird little leftover collection from an oversaturated album that’s all ambition and no soul. Best case: Push has 12 more of these silent killers and a few more angles. —Julian Brimmers
The day before “Untouchable” dropped, I had a chance to speak to (producer/ GOOD Music COO) Che Pope. He explained to me that he was the COO, while you would soon be announced as the company’s president. How do you split up duties at GOOD Music?
Pusha T: It’s pretty easy, man. Being the president is mostly based around the roll out of projects and the planning and positioning of things to heighten the label. Musically, art-wise, financially, whether it be merch, or opportunities to come, like touring and so forth. It comes down to heavy planning but eventually everything starts with the music. Everything. That’s always the first focus and, y’know, we’re GOOD music so we always have awesome music. It makes everything else that much easier.
As someone who has been through so much turmoil with the politics of the business throughout his career, what are the benefits of a team run by artists or art-minded people?
Pusha T: I feel like that’s a total plus. I feel I can relate to every artist and I know their needs and their wants and I even understand their sometimes special ways of thinking. As artists we run on passion a lot. Of course, passion and business hardly ever work well together. I can say that being able to relate brings sense to many things a lot of times.
Were you your own A&R on Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude?
Pusha T: I wouldn’t say I was my own A&R. I mean, I certainly had a vision, but when you work with the likes of Puff and Kanye, their insights, and just being in the studio with them, it basically means you’re getting the best A&R’ing ever. They definitely followed my vision but it would be cheating to say that I was the A&R, when you’re dealing with those guys.
You mentioned before how Puff even criticized your writing…
Pusha T: Yeah, man. He definitely was a tough critic and he was all about me being unpredictable in my lines. I feel like we found those moments of unpredictability and it made for great music. He was 100% correct. And it made for awesome songs.
It’s interesting that you and Timbaland go way back, even to when he was Virginia’s own DJ Timmy Tim. How come you have never worked together until now?
Pusha T: Well, you gotta remember that Timbaland is my brother’s (Clipse’s Malice / No Malice) peer more so than mine. Tim is like 6 years older than me. So even when he was DJ Timmy Tim I was a child just going over to his house, being a tag-along. It wasn’t about me working with him. My brother already was a rapper and Tim was his DJ through middle school and high school. I was in elementary school. It never occurred to me that I could work with Tim. But as I came of age and came into the industry, we were with the Neptunes and we were just moving forward, while Tim and Missy were doing what they were doing. We were definitely making our mark on the game in two different lanes.
“Untouchable” was already very raw, “Got ’em Covered” might be an even more insane beat to pick. Now, Ab-Liva, who is featured on the track, is known to be an excellent writer, but how did he react when you presented him that far-out Timbo loop?
Pusha T: Oh man, he was so excited when I showed him that that was gonna be the record I was gonna put him on [laughs]. Working on a Timbaland track, that’s a dream come true for any rapper because it gets back to testing yourself. Timbaland tracks are like a puzzle. Once you’ve figured out the puzzle you know that you’ve made a track that people will not be able duplicate. You conquered the beat.
In what sense is it a puzzle? Finding your cadence?
Pusha T: Yes, finding your cadence and finding your melody over the beat. And keeping it concise and clear without rambling on. You have to bob and weave through all of the instrumentation and sounds that Timbaland uses.
In general, almost all of the beats you’ve picked for Darkest Before Dawn are so sparse that they demand a lot of confidence in your own pen game and vocal projection.
Pusha T: Yeah, bare bones rapping. That’s what I try to achieve at all costs. I’m definitely about that and I feel that that’s my lane in hip hop today, whereas most artists don’t focus on that as much.
Who do you respect lyrically at the moment?
Pusha T: Lyrically I respect J.Cole and Kendrick. Those two as well as Big Sean. Those are the three that impress me.
You gave out the lyrics to the singles before the music dropped, you even wrote your own annotations. There’s a lot going on lyrically, especially with regards to the structure of your songs. Could you talk a bit about the second verse of “Money, Pussy, Alcohol?” That one is quite controversial…
Pusha T: “Money, Pussy, Alcohol” is about the three vices that I feel young, black men in the streets deal with. They breed competition, perpetuate lust and a whole bunch of variables that can end up in weird ways. In the second verse I was really speaking from the perspective of a guy who takes the local around-the-way girl who grew up with him for granted. You don’t understand that you missed out and that she was a diamond in the rough. You’re going out with her, she’s right next to you, you take her for granted.
Until she steps out of the neighborhood and these guys from across town begin to see her beauty and her greatness. When in all honesty she was the one who was doing things for you and the neighborhood, taking care of everyone, running errands, putting herself at risk, letting you in her house running from the police or whatever the case may be. Eventually, she was the one who has the boyfriend around the neighborhood, he goes to jail she rides it out with him and so on and so forth. Eventually they get tired of the guys taking advantage of them and they get tired of the lifestyle as a whole.
The undertone of that is—everything starts in the streets. The character that these women have comes from the street. That character that you build with these women, and that you’ve taken for granted, is appealing to other guys who actually have made it. These girls are fabby, they’re fun. At the end of the verse you sort of see that I am looking at it reflectively. Like man, we missed a diamond in the rough.
These last few bars struck me as an interesting twist on the “gold digger” stereotype…
Pusha T: Exactly, the whole gold digger mentality is weird to me because I don’t know anybody in this world who doesn’t want to have things. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t want to be in the hot mix, the cool mix, [laughs] be around everything that’s great. We all strive for something and in regards to girls who grew up in the street, live next to these street guys, a lot of time they don’t get appreciated. The verse is really about everything that you hone with this girl, somebody else appreciates it while you watched her grow and blossom and move on. Ultimately it was her rise, her sailing off into the sunset.
Another example for the importance of structuring your songs is on “Keep Dealing.” You and Beanie Siegel end every verse on how you blew your first, second, and third million—did you ever get rid of the fear of losing everything again?
Pusha T: No, I don’t think the fear of losing it all ever goes away. I feel like it’s all about maintaining and growing it, and that’s what you wake up for everyday. You wake up to figure out how to maintain your life and to grow and become bigger, secure yourself more and more. I do feel like dealing with the music industry has taught me that there’s nothing I can’t conquer. I tell people all the time: I feel like the last rap super hero. And you can’t make that statement without talking about the battles you have lost, or the bad times. If you never had any bad times than you are untested. So you can’t be a superhero, I mean…Batman gets beat up through 40% of the damn cartoon [laughs]! He’s losing! Spiderman, all these guys lose their tests and battles. The Joker is going crazy and it’s looking like he is up until the last minute. To apply that to rap, it’s the same way, you gotta talk about the times you were down and took a loss.