Pusha T could rap forever, but only on his terms
The Virginia Beach native shot to fame with his brother as the brash half of hip-hop duo Clipse, and over the past two decades the self-proclaimed “Robb Report of the Snort” has honed his craft, finding a niche in the overlap between coke and luxury rap. Clipse’s run included two of the most acclaimed albums of the 2000s of any genre – 2002’s ‘Lord Willin’ and 2006’s ‘Hell Hath No Fury’ – and the Pusha T star continued to soar as he signed to Kanye West’s GOOD Music. label as a solo artist in 2010 as he reclaimed the aesthetic veneer of the notoriously peculiar rapper and producer.
At 45, Pusha T knows the trends of contemporary hip-hop well but doesn’t care. As Gen Xer fell in love with hip-hop in its early heyday, he has a particular affinity for lyricism. “I don’t think being lyrically good is outdated,” Pusha T said via Zoom call during a break from touring in support of “It’s Almost Dry.” His vision isn’t rooted solely in rigid pedantry either: it’s based on his tastes, but it’s also tied to what he’s achieved through a very specific approach.
Even with supreme confidence in his resume (“I don’t think anything is better than ‘It’s Almost Dry’ — at all,” he says with conviction), Pusha isn’t content to rest on his laurels. He is thinking about the future and wholeheartedly believes he can rap at a high level. Legacy is paramount to Pusha T, so every move he makes is in service of being remembered not only with respect, but also in accordance with his principles. “I want everyone to be able to look at my discography and be like, ‘This guy knew exactly who he was,'” he says.
Although he feels like a lone wolf, Pusha T has the good faith to work with whoever he wants. Jay-Z makes an appearance on “Neck & Wrist,” a haunting track from “It’s Almost Dry” on which the billionaire stands on top of his massive net worth to scorn peons with substandard jewelry. The album’s sonic backdrop was crafted almost exclusively by West and Pharrell Williams, two of music’s most esteemed producers who can bring out the best in Pusha T in different ways. He credits Williams – who, along with his Neptunes producing partner Chad Hugo, has blessed Clipse with many of their best and most abstract compositions – for encouraging him to resist boundaries. “There’s no ceiling to Pharrell’s creativity, and he pushes you to have no ceiling with what you want to do, musically,” he explains.
Meanwhile, Pusha T describes working with West as a “humiliating” experience at times because West pushes him to edit himself. That’s no surprise, given West’s history of sticking to deadlines and updating his work last minute, even after it’s been released. “Kanye could hear a verse from me and say, ‘Oh my god, that was so awesome,'” he says. “Then he’ll live with the verse for two days and say, ‘Hey man, I think you could change like three things. And I’ll say, ‘But you were just happy the other day,’ and he’ll say, ‘Yeah, but I’ve lived with it and I think it could be better.’
Yet it is Williams who demands more from Pusha T, constantly pushing him out of his comfort zone. “Me and Kanye are very similar in our love for hot 16, rap mixtape, hard verse and things like that,” he says. “Pharrell loves all those things, but he wants them in a hit record.” This led to debates between Pusha T and Williams during the making of “It’s Almost Dry”, but the clashes were productive as they challenged Pusha T to do his best – in terms of lyrics, flow and of delivery – to convince Williams. “And that’s where the arm wrestling comes in, and we make a record like ‘Call My Bluff’ and you get to that point where we’re all extremely happy,” he says.
“I think he hits with karma and loves to deliver it with a heartless expression in any way,” says Williams, who has known Pusha T since the latter was in high school. “So when you look at the music from that particular album, we allowed people into the other sections of the library of his mind.”
Pusha T believes that enlisting the two greatest figures in his artistic development is essential to staying sharp as long as possible. He’s at a point in his career where traditionally the popularity of many rappers has waned. “I feel like everyone who was great before me – and I’m talking about the golden age, which I was a fan of as a kid – you realize it was just three or four albums,” he says. “The albums are amazing, but when you realize how short the window was, it’s crazy.”
This changed during Pusha T’s career. He points to Jay-Z as an artist who continued to have great success while maintaining his skills in his 50s, but also considers Jay-Z to be part of an era. hip-hop that precedes it. Pusha T believes his particular generation of rappers can be the first to show that they can be excellent, in a technical sense, throughout their careers. “I actually want to be competitive in the space and match what I’m doing to what’s most popular at the time and see how it rises,” he says. And naturally, he absolutely believes in the enduring presence of his music over what’s popular: “You can have the A’s and B’s – put them side by side – and mine stands the test of time.”
The Pusha T who is angered by French fashion house Lanvin’s poor pronunciation on the “C’est almost sec” cut “Dreamin of the Past” is far removed from the cheeky young artist who announced: “Playas, we are not not the same – I’m into ‘caine and guns’ in the intro of Clipse’s debut album However, Pusha T’s biggest criticism is that he is one-dimensional and his cocky drug dealer shtick has become obsolete A Variety review of the new album spoke of disappointment that Pusha T, who is now a married father, remains so devoted to coke rap when he has the ability to tap into other subjects and show growth. To call its supposed development arrested overlooks the evolution that has unfolded in broad daylight.
Street rap is Pusha T’s genre, and coke rap the specific subgenre he is a supporter of. He frequently talks about selling drugs, but he’s able to do it with some depth and variation under the umbrella of street rap. “Nightmares”, from “Hell Hath No Fury”, is heavy with paranoia. “SNITCH,” from Pusha T’s debut solo album, “My Name Is My Name,” is an ode to betrayal. “Brambleton,” the hypnotic opener to “It’s Almost Dry,” strikes a similar chord, but finds Pusha T getting deeply personal and addressing former Clipse executive Anthony “Geezy” Gonzalez, who spent time in a federal prison for running a major drug operation, with cutting beards (though clearly injured).
“It’s Almost Dry” also finds Pusha T experimenting with different flows and pockets, such as on the quirky “Neck & Wrist”, the demonic rush of “Let the Smokers Shine the Coupes” and the icy “Brambleton”. “The way he delivers it, that’s where we kind of shook the tree this time,” Williams says.
“Lyrically, his rhymes have become more eidetic,” says music journalist and broadcaster Brian “B. Point” Miller. “Sonically, he’s ready to experiment with new sounds like on ‘Numbers on the Board’. and “Infrared”, songs from 2013 and 2018, respectively.
In any case, the criticism of stagnation carries little weight with Pusha T, who is more focused on specific tasks that are directly in front of him at the moment.
The Something in the Water festival, which Williams launched in her hometown of Virginia Beach in 2019, will take over the National Mall when she returns this weekend. Williams chose to move the festival following his disapproval with the response of city officials after police shot and killed his cousin Donovon Lynch in 2021. “I just don’t think the powers that be were respectful of this that Pharrell brought to Virginia Beach, so he called for a relocation,” says Pusha T. “DC has always been near and dear to the hearts of Pharrell and me.”
Pusha T was already on the massive roster of performers, but he says he received a special request from Williams’ team just over a week before the event. According to Pusha T, they wanted him to ask his brother, No Malice, to join him for a Clipse meeting. No Malice agreed, confirming the third iteration of a Clipse reunion this year after the brothers reconnected with Japanese streetwear icon and Clipse enthusiast Nigo “I Know Nigo!” compilation album and the culmination of “It’s Almost Dry”. “Even though it’s small, one-off things, it’s just a reminder — especially those verses — that the Clipse might actually make an album tomorrow and people would love it,” says Pusha T.
Having served as president of GOOD Music since 2015, he says he can see himself as a label boss opening doors for other Virginia artists down the line. “I think there’s so much talent coming out of Virginia, but just because of the history and the landscape and the way things happened, I feel like we were really big artists, but we never really built the infrastructure,” he says. “So that’s something I’d like to see and something I’m undertaking.”
But first, he wants to release additional music with Williams and West as masters. “I don’t really try to exploit new frontiers if we don’t create them together,” he says. “I don’t run after the sound of the moment.” He also wants to release music more often because he thinks it would make it easier to have a conversation about how his work compares to the sound of the moment.
Pusha T’s combination of assertiveness and rigor could convince most that he would at least be try rap until he can’t anymore. But he recognizes that he can see his end in hip-hop. It would come on his terms, of course: he’ll quit if he can’t create what he wants, how he wants, with whom he wants.
“I only want to do this one way,” he says. “I’m just thinking about discography now, and I want mine to have a certain feel. If I can’t do that, then yes, I can be done.