At this point, Pusha T’s presence and precision is less like a rapper and more like a rattlesnake: he disappears into the wilderness, rarely seen but always known by whoever else is in its kingdom. He shows up out of nowhere and waits for just the right moment to take a bite out of his prey. He lunges into the spotlight and then slithers away, but the second anyone hears his low gutteral “YUGH,” a shiver runs down the spine of the rap game. Or maybe Pusha’s more like a trained assassin, knocking down targets with the slightest of ease and strategy. Even in his 40s and a seasoned veteran of both the street-rap scene and the major-label record industry, Push cuts through raps like a young lion itching to prove himself. But then again….well, Pusha T is a lot of things. And as he’s proven over the last month, one of those things is not boring.
Pusha T has been threatening to drop an instant classic ever since Clipse fell through. It may have taken him eight years to do it, but Daytona seems to have struck the pitch-perfect Pusha T project: a mere seven tracks, 22 minutes long entirely produced by Kanye West. There’s no radio single, no R&B/pop crossover attempt and no co-sign of a currently trending rapper. Daytona is pure, freshly-cut, essential Pusha T with no frills and no BS. And Kanye, the man who has been Pusha’s biggest champion whether he was in the spotlight or not, seemingly understands that better than anybody. Ye’s beats are ice cold with looping samples, hi-hats that flash through songs like a strobe light and bass that growls and booms through the speakers. “The Games We Play,” “Hard Piano” and “Santeria” sound like music to be played for a parade honoring Al Capone, mixing sharp guitar and piano riffs with whirring bass lines to make some of the most exquisite-yet-grimy rap either Push or Ye have ever produced. Even in the current plethora of trap rap, Daytona has top-tier trap beats on “If You Know, You Know,” “What Would Meek Do?” and “Infrared.” But everything great about Daytona is all boiled down and perfected on “Come Back Baby”: three-and-a-half minutes of a soul-sampling chorus that slips back into a rumbling bassline while Pusha chomps and chews his way through verses. It’s true supervillain music that Pusha wears better than anybody.
And Pusha is not playing a character, he thrives on being a successful cheater of the American Dream. On “Come Back Baby,” he’d rather use cocaine than currency as a measure of wealth and success like Tony Montana before him (“N***a, wrist for wrist—let’s have a glow-off/F**k it, brick for brick—let’s have a blow-off”). The “cocaine concierge” still REALLY loves rapping about drugs, but what makes Pusha stand out is the detail and the different avenues he takes to rap about drugs. He’s a teacher (“If you ain’t energized like the bunny for drug money/Or been paralyzed by the sight of a drug mummy/This ain’t really for you, this is for the Goya Montoya”), a servant to the game (“Bricklayers in ball shorts/Coachin’ from the side of the ball court”) and all around boss of his own world (“I just place orders and drop dollars/Rottweilers roam the grounds, the Glock hollers”). Even when he approaches his own success, Push finds ways to brag about his own self-consciousness as on “What Would Meek Do?” with Kanye. Push is well aware he’s being watched and waited on to slip up like Meek Mill, and he’s thought about it too (“Angel on my shoulder, ‘What should we do?’ (we do)/Devil on the other, ‘What would Meek do?’/Pop a wheelie, tell the judge to Akinyele”). Somehow, Push finds a way to flex about his natural success while still being a fiend (“Two can get you four like a double dare (woo!)/I’m the king of the oven-ware (oven-ware)/You can piece the whole puzzle here”). And of course there’s “Infrared,” the album-closing takedown of the modern rap music industry: he thinks success goes to soft rappers (“Remember Will Smith won the first Grammy?/And they ain’t even recognize Hov until ‘Annie’/So I don’t tap dance for the crackers and sing Mammy”), finds that success on the pop charts is more a shackle than celebration (“Salute Ross ’cause the message was pure/He see what I see when you see Wayne on tour/Flash without the fire/Another multi-platinum rapper trapped and can’t retire”) and is clear that people are ignorant to the truth (“Oh, now it’s okay to kill Baby/N***as looked at me crazy like I really killed a baby…N***as get exposed, I see the cracks and I’m the liar?/S**t, I’ve been exposed, I took the crack and built the wire”). While he would go deeper on a certain rapper later on, “Infrared” is Push airing his frustration with an industry he clearly loves, as if rap music has been failed by the people.
Or worse, the people have failed Pusha T. Lord knows Drake’s chart success will be hard to touch considering how marketable he’s made himself and even if the internet has mocked and memed him after Pusha’s attacks, it’s not like radios have stopped playing “God’s Plan” and “Nice For What” is still sitting pretty at the top of the pop charts. But fortunately, Pusha doesn’t seem to give a damn and he really shouldn’t. Daytona serves as Pusha’s best solo project: a reminder of why he is one of the best rappers alive today and a handy introduction for new fans to see someone who can straddle the trap-rap trend while still being one of the sharpest rhymers/writers in music. Pusha might slink back into the shadows in a couple months or so to run G.O.O.D. Music or make another deal with Adidas, letting rap morph and mold into whatever its next phase will be. Regardless of that shape, Pusha T is always lurking in the grass, eyes wide open and waiting for his next mark to sink his fangs into.