I rarely get nervous interviewing rappers anymore, years of repetition can turn anything into a job, but I was nervous interviewing Pusha T. So great was my fandom that I might have literally screwed up my own name when I introduced myself, and instead of asking him about Kanye or his album or any of the other questions a "professional" journalist would have asked, I spent the entire time talking to him about the origin of his ad-libs and the brilliance of his verse on "Keys Open Doors" because fuck it, those are the questions hardcore Pusha T fans want answered and I was going to represent for the hardcore fans. All of this to say that I wasn't about to let anyone else on the DJBooth staff review Pusha's new album but me.
In the grand tradition of Re-Up Gang mixtapes with crazy long titles and a lot of puncutation marks (ex. We Got It For Cheap, Volume 3: The Spirit of Competition (We Just Think We're Better)), Pusha's decided to close out 2015 with the release of King Push - Darkest Before the Dawn: The Prelude, his first project since 2013's excellent My Name Is My Name, and I personally couldn't be more excited. I've got all my money stashed in the ceiling, my eyes are full of hope, I've checked into a room at the Hyatt and I'm full prepared to make a bunch of references only Clipse fans will get.
Per traditional 1 Listen Review rules, this will be my gut reaction as I listen for the first time, no pausing or rewinding, no editing, no rewriting. Just stream of conciousness reactions, let's go.
I know it was unreasonable, but a big part of me was praying that Push would bring back that Latino dude who did the intro to Hell Hath No Fury - and HOLY SHIT IT HAPPENED! Christmas came early for Nathan Slavik. Who is that dude? Has anyone ever tracked him down and interviewed him? I might have to be the change I wish to see in the world. Oh, and this intro is fire flames. I can already tell that the hard part about doing a 1 Listen for a Pusha T album is there's no way I can keep up with all the references in real time. Heard a crazy Lord Willin x "Grindin" reference, already can't wait to go back to this one.
Man......a Biggie sample, shots fired at Donald Trump and YouTube rappers all in the first verse? I'm really fighting the urge to already declare this the greatest album of all-time ever in history ever, if you can't get ridiculsouly over-excited listening to great music for the first time, what's even the point of listening to great music? This is some of that music you play while landing a plane full of Columbian coke on an island in the Bahamas to refuel before heading to Miami. And yes, I just finished watching Narcos.
“M.F.T.R.” (ft. The-Dream)
Mixed feelings about The-Dream here. I know Push has used him repeatedly over the years, something about the contrast between his falsetto voice and Push's harder verses, but I'm not trying to hear a guy whose most reckless move was cheating on Christina Milian sing about drive-by-shootings. Anyway, that Gil Scot Heron line? YEECHHH!!! Put someone else on this hook and I'm all in.
“Crutches, Crosses, Caskets” (prod. by Diddy)
Thinking Diddy produced this by himself is like thinking Steve Jobs personally flew to China and assembled all those iPhones himself. Mellower vibe on this one, a needed breather. Another one I'm going to have to go back and do a real lyrical analysis on...wait, did he just call himself the L. Ron Hubbard of the cupboard? I don't even really know what that means - Push is the Scientology of the coke game - but it's amazing.
“M.P.A.” (ft. Kanye West, A$AP Rocky & The-Dream) (prod. by J. Cole)
See, a much better use of The-Dream's voice. He's great singing about love or being hated or impregnating groupies, not loading up the clip. The second I heard Kanye's voice on this it started sounding like a part two of "Runaway," especially with that piano line. Not sure about this beat, it's fine, but it can't touch any of the beats Cole kept for himself on FHD. This one might grow on me with some repetition, but on first listen, it's the album's low point so far. Kind of dissapointing considering what I dreamed of for a line-up like Push, Kanye, Rocky and Cole.
“Got Em Covered” (ft. Ab-Liva)
Anytime Ab-Liva shows up on a Push album I start having flashbacks to all those fucking amazing We Get It For Cheap mixtapes, definitely a good thing. Kind of a "Numbers on the Board" beat in the sense that it feels like Push is challenging himself to rap hard over a beat most emcees wouldn't know what to do with. I'll take it, these last three tracks have been a nice tempo change, but I'm not so secretly hoping the album picks up some energy next.
“Keep Dealing” (ft. Beanie Sigel)
Well...the tempo is staying mid, so I didn't get my wish there, but it's hard to complain about Push bringing Beans back. Push just called himself the Andy Warhol of coke rap, I could write a dictionary of all the shit King Push has compared cocaine to (of course starting with his "Keys Open Doors" verse). And oh shit, Beans voice sounds so grimy. I'm writing this in my office and I'm kind of shook, it feels like Beanie's going to creep up behind me and stab me in the spleen with a spoon he's been sharpening for months in his cell. Yes, that's a good thing.
“Retribution” (ft. Kehlani)
Big look for Kehlani, interested in hearing how she sounds here. AAAAAHHHHH!!! SSAHFJ:OIUWIR(E*F()*_*#(UiLKJ#LKJNCNKJSD. I just completely lost my mind when the bass dropped on that beat. Sweet baby Jesus. And yep, Kehlani sounds great on the hook. This is exactly the enegry uplift I was looking for, I can't wait to play this in the car at ridiculous volumes. (For the record, the car is a Honda Fit, but that just makes playing coke rap in it all the more dangerous.)
Um....maybe it's just because I was feeling "Retribution" so much, but gut reaction this feels like kind of a let-down. By nearly any one else's standard this would be a great track, but for Pusha it's...I kind of feel nervous writing this....it's kind of album filler. Again, hopefully it'll grow on me with some more listens, but this one's just not connecting with me right now.
“Sunshine” (ft. Jill Scott)
Goddamn, can you imagine if it went straight from "Retribution" to "Sunshine"? This is just....I really just want to listen and stop typing. The inflection Jill Scott puts on her voice her is so perfect, she's amazing, and this is some of the best commentary on police brutality I've heard from rap this year. This is a social justice march through the trap, the movement with a grinding bass line. Pusha T for president.
As I said in the "Intro," a Pusha T album is particularly ill suited for the 1 Listen format because he's so reference heavy there's just no way you can really appreciate his lyrics on the first try, I'm still figuring out wordplay from Lord Willin all these years later. But in another way, the 1 Listen format is perfect for Pusha T because at its best the man's music just provokes that visceral Ric Flair "WHOOO!!!!" reaction, and you only need one listen to know if the music is Ric Flair-worthy or not.
Gut reaction, Darkest Before the Dawn is Ric Flair worthy, although as the full title suggests it feels more like a prelude to the album than the album proper. By no means do I need a double-disc, but nine full tracks is on the short side, and I just need Pusha to move a little more weight than that. So while I know he's said his ambition is for this project to instantly enter the "Album of the Year" conversation, I don't see it happening. Still, it's a more than worthy addition to the canon of Terrence Thornton, and more than enough to have me salivating over a 2016 that witnesses the arrival of King Push. All hail the king.
[By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]