Pusha-T, a Lecturer Seeking a Target, Finds One

Posted May 30, 2018 8:46 p.m. EDT

When Pusha-T raps, it’s with the air of a stern father lecturing his children, who may or may not be listening. But it doesn’t matter which — the teaching is its own end.

That’s been the case since his days rapping alongside his brother, Malice, as one-half of the Clipse; together, they were responsible for some of the most ferocious and meticulous drug-dealing-demimonde rapping the genre has ever seen. But Malice has become No Malice — he’s given himself to a higher power — and Pusha-T is left to till that poisoned soil on his own.

He is 41 now, and committed to the work, making canvases that look similar from far away but up close reveal a fluency in pointillist detail. On “Daytona,” his fourth solo release — at seven songs totaling 22 minutes, it’s an EP masquerading as an album — he remains rigorous, declaiming with a severe voice salted with light gravel.

His topic: Ethics. A code of conduct derived from a bygone era in rap. Every time Pusha-T mentions Ghostface Killah and Raekwon, or alludes to the Lox, or name-checks Akinyele, he prizes a kind of street formalism particular to the New York (and New-York-inspired) rap of the 1990s, which has now largely been relegated to the underground.

This is his bailiwick, though, and there’s plenty of it on this strong album. On “Hard Piano,” he’s sneering, and “The Games We Play” is staggeringly good: “Caviar facials remove the toxins/This ain’t for the conscious, this is for the mud-made monsters.” On “Come Back Baby,” he traces the path from illegal business to legal, from anonymity to fame back to anonymity:

Blew through thousands, we made millions

Cocaine soldiers, once civilians

Bought hoes Hondas, took care children

Let my pastor build out buildings

Rapped on classics, I been brilliant

Now we blend in, we chameleons

Pusha-T doesn’t hurry; he’s sniper patient. On songs like “If You Know You Know,” he sometimes raps so crisply and sparsely — “A rapper turned trapper can’t morph into us/But a trapper turned rapper can morph into Puff” — that he almost feels disconnected from the song’s rhythm. His syllables have hard edges, and rarely does he let feeling get in the way, though the one exception is “Santeria,” inspired by the murder of his road manager. On this song, you can almost hear the wetness in Pusha-T’s rhymes, his typical stoicism traded for something a little short of breath.

“Daytona" (G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam) was produced in deeply satisfying fashion by Kanye West, with additional production by his longtime collaborators Andrew Dawson and Mike Dean. It is a return to West’s early days as a seeker and reinterpreter of deep samples, but overlaid with the coldness and menace of his “Yeezus” era.

When “Daytona” was released last week, it was met with a fevered response. But in a desert, water has a way of appearing not just wet, but sweet. “Daytona” may stand alone in this moment — particularly in contrast to the woozy, blown-out rap albums dominating the charts because of the primacy of streaming — but it isn’t as effective as “My Name Is My Name,” Pusha-T’s 2013 full-length solo debut album. “Daytona” is terser, leaving only nits to pick; say, that the second and third verses of “Come Back Baby” lack the fire and wit of the rest of the album.

Authority, of course, is regionally and temporally specific — what’s acknowledged as certitude now sounds nothing like it did when Pusha-T was growing up. “I’m too rare amongst all of this pink hair,” he raps on “Hard Piano,” a sidelong shot at the excesses of the SoundCloud generation. Pusha-T stands out amid the meditative, louche koans of Playboi Carti or the creaky whine of Lil Baby.

And of course, he stands in contrast to Drake, the melodist who has been the biggest influence on hip-hop this decade. He is a thorn in Pusha-T’s side, a convenient antagonist. On “Infrared,” Pusha-T renews the critique that Drake has had help writing his raps: “The lyric penning equal to Trump’s winning.”

Less than a day after “Daytona” was released, Drake replied with a cruel song, “Duppy Freestyle,” calling Pusha-T’s street bona fides into question and perhaps crossing a line by mentioning his fiancee.

On Tuesday, Pusha-T released “The Story of Adidon.” Rapping over the beat from Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.,” a song about a crossover star’s racial anxiety, he replied in deeply personal terms, suggesting that Drake has anxiety about his relationship to blackness (the cover art is a discomfiting old photo of Drake, who is biracial, in blackface); that Drake’s father abandoned the family; and that Drake — who, Pusha-T alleges on the song, has a secret child — is on the path to revisiting his father’s sins. There are cruel words about Drake’s mother, and about 40, his producer, who has multiple sclerosis.

It is heartless, ice-cold stuff — shockingly intimate information used against an artist for whom intimacy was long his stock in trade. Pusha-T’s proclamations are typically abstract, more particular to his experience than to any specific target. But when a target arrives, he’s prepared.