There are many classifications in place for how we choose to discuss and label rap records. A memorable rap song can be revived in our memories with little effort but can make an impression regardless of how good or bad it actually is. A classic rap song—although critically adored for its quality and importance—doesn’t necessarily have to burden itself with being commercially successful. The classic, memorable, important, and popular songs that we subconsciously organize into these categories are made using a simpler math.
A perfect rap song, however, is like solving a calculus derivative, breaking down a much larger equation into smaller pieces to discover each of their individual functions.
We strive for perfection in almost every aspect of life, yet we rarely spend the time to understand what perfection looks, feels, or sounds like. In music, the perfect song is something transcendent of, possibly, its artist’s own intentions, and resides on a musical plane of excellence that very few artists are able to maintain. It isn’t just a classic or memorable song because, at its core, it is all those things. The perfect rap song, specifically, doesn’t concern itself solely with the ideas of sustainability, popularity, or critical adoration because its formation ensures that those qualities are never in doubt.
The perfect rap song is “Nosetalgia” by Pusha T featuring Kendrick Lamar.
“Nosetalgia” isn’t the only perfect rap song, nor will it be the last. Instead, it serves as a foolproof example of what one impeccable piece of music—in the context of the artist, their career, the production, and the lyrics—should sound like. Everything from Pusha T and Kendrick’s lyrics to Nottz’ production contains brilliance, and that genius is ultimately hidden within its own DNA.
It isn’t just a song, but a derivative equation waiting to be broken down to examine each of its pieces…
This may come as a surprise but, spoiler alert, Pusha T has been rapping about the trafficking of cocaine for nearly two decades, and doing it quite well. The Virginia native and one-half of legendary duo Clipse has always been a rapper capable of crafting songs that never felt like a glorification of the drug trade, nor condemnations. Instead, Pusha T’s music is a flashy, dark, and somewhat dichotomous examination of drug dealing and the different paths in which that lifestyle can lead someone.
Conceptually, “Nosetalgia” is the apex of Pusha T’s entire career in the span of four minutes, and it genuinely feels like the moment he had always been building to. “Nosetalgia” tells the story of two boys, both influenced by their surroundings of drug-addled family members, classmates being used as drug mules, and the harsh reality of what happens in death from the drug game.
For years, the moral ambiguity of street life has always been the most fascinating aspect of Pusha T’s subject matter, and this makes a lot of sense for someone who named their album after HBO’s The Wire, an acclaimed show that tackled that same concept. Pusha’s My Name Is My Name album title is based on words spoken by Marlo Stanfield, a reserved, cold, calculated West Baltimore drug dealer, and on “Nosetalgia” Pusha’s album title couldn’t feel more metaphorical. Marlo was a seemingly surface level character who, when pushed to defend his reputation, was as complex and ambiguous a character as the show ever had. On “Nosetalgia,” that same complexity is displayed in Pusha T’s lines which, on the surface, may feel like his typical, gloriously dark lyrics only to reveal a haunting pain behind their boisterousness.
On a deeper level, though, the concept blurs the lines between music and the streets, with Pusha’s verse telling the tale of a burgeoning drug dealer while Kendrick details the transformation of street life to music. With several references to Boyz N The Hood, it’s easy to say that Pusha plays the part of Doughboy and Kendrick as Tre Styles, but it’s more than that. In short, Pusha T is the dealer; Kendrick Lamar is the drug.
The concept of a perfect song has to walk a tightrope in terms of execution. It can’t be too simplistic, yet it also can’t feel like it requires months of research by academic scholars in order to determine its message. In essence, the concept has to both hook you and keep you on the line, but the reel can’t pop out of the water the second you get close. The concept must also feel separated from coming across like a lecture. It’s what separates the perfect concepts in songs like Mos Def’s “Mathematics” and Lupe Fiasco’s “Hurt Me Soul” and the racial commentary and much of the material from Logic’s album Everybody. “Nosetalgia” never dares to share its opinion about how it feels towards its own subject matter, but rather displays it in an effective form and leaves it open for the listener’s interpretation.
The concept of a perfect rap song is much like the trunk of a tree, and the lyrics that branch off of it are what tend to be the most fruitful part of our listening experience. In other words, a perfect song requires lyrical perfection no matter how great the concept might seem. On “Nosetalgia,” there is a delicate balance of movie references, punchlines, extended metaphors, and double entendres that will keep any avid listener coming back for more.
On Pusha’s verse, the brilliance begins within the first four bars as he states:
“20 plus years of selling Johnson & Johnson / I started out as a baby face monster / No wonder there's diaper rash on my conscience / My teething ring was numbed by the nonsense”
Here we find everything from the coupling of baby products and cocaine metaphors to illustrate Pusha’s introduction to the drug game, to words like “numb” and “monster” being expertly written to reinforce the gravity of just how impactful these experiences were in his life. Later in the verse, references of everything from Dr. Zhivago to Ivan Drago to the aforementioned Doughboy and Tre paint relatable pictures in the listener’s head, as Pusha walks us down his own dark and twisted narrative.
As the verse finishes, the narrative climaxes with the depressing notion that what you leave behind in the game is everyone else’s for the taking, with Pusha stating:
“Inscribe a nigga name in your flesh / We playing on a higher game of chess / Once you delegate his bills who's gone fuck his bitch the best?”
This is a cycle that eventually ends and begins once again, with each new life introduced into the drug game ending with nothing more to show for it than the scheming of old friends to take what’s left of their money and girlfriends.
On Kendrick’s verse, the story plays out from a tangential point of view with lyrics that feel like they’re coming from a post-apocalyptic version of Kendrick’s own album, good kid, m.A.A.d city. Kendrick’s verse, also leading off with a reference to either Boyz N The Hood or Stand By Me, builds the narrative of a young man adversely influenced by the drug game, with stories of fiends stealing his Sega Genesis and bad experimentations with laced marijuana.
“Troubles on my mind, I still smell crime / My little brother crying / Smokers repeatedly buying my Sega Genesis / Either that or my auntie was stealing it / Hit the pipe and start feeling it / Oh wee, cut me some slack, weed never did that / This was different, geez, Louise please help me relax”
The lyrics feel claustrophobic and suffocating, as Kendrick’s detail of his innocent experiments with drugs feels as heavy as possible. At other points in the verse, like when Kendrick raps, “When I was ten / Back when nine ounces have got you ten / And nine times out of ten niggas don't pay attention / And when there's tension in the air nines come with extensions,” the play on words like nine and ten never feel gimmicky, instead meshing well as breathers in an otherwise intense verse.
As his verse is about to come to a close, there’s a sudden twist in the narrative as Kendrick raps about speaking to his dad—a one-time drug dealer—about bringing him the best dope he’d ever seen. When his dad seems confused as to what his son is talking about, the audience finally learns that Kendrick’s music is, in fact, the drug he’s ready to sell, and everything else in his story falls into place. “Go figure motherfucker, every verse is a brick,” is as punctual a rap lyric as a person is bound to hear, dropping at the exact right time to bring the entire verse, and song, into perspective. Kendrick isn’t a victim of the streets, but the same product he watched get sold his entire childhood. In this instance, however, he decided to sell it to us.
This is the type of journey that listeners must be taken on in the lyrics of a perfect rap song. It isn’t always about fitting in the most punchlines or creating an unimpeachable narrative, but rather assembling a well-balanced combination of both. It’s what songs like JAY-Z’s “Can I Live” and Nas’ “N.Y. State of Mind” do so immaculately. “Nosetalgia” reaches that lyrical peak.
The Relationship Between Artist and Production
“Nosetalgia” doesn’t only represent the crowning achievement of Pusha T’s solo career but in Nottz’ production as well. The incessant repetitions of the guitar from Bobby Bland’s “If Loving You is Wrong (I Don’t Want To Be Right)” puncture the speakers with each listen. The song’s bassline follows behind like a shadow to Pusha T’s menacing lyrics. The Boogie Down Productions “The Bridge is Over” sample on the chorus transports the listener directly into the crack-riddled 1980s. In essence, Nottz’ production is the perfect complement to Pusha T’s lyrics.
Nottz builds upon the same Marlo Stanfield narrative that Pusha T so heavily emulates throughout the album. The drums and bassline of “Nosetalgia” feel minimalistic at times, but only on the surface. If you dig deep enough, and the intricacies of the beat breaks, changes in bass, and drum patterns feel much like the emotions below the surface of Marlo Stanfield. Pusha has always been at his best when the production is basic in its intent, but complex in its execution. In other words, his best songs always do the most with as little material as possible.
A perfect song can’t just have flawless production, though. If that were the case, then most DJ Premier and RZA-produced songs would be considered perfect. Instead, the producer themselves has to understand not only the narrative at play within the song but the narrative of the emcee’s entire career. The production on a rap song isn’t just background music, but a vessel for the message each rapper is attempting to get across. It must feel authentic, enticing, and enjoyable all at the same time.
Production is what makes songs like Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones Pt. ll,” Gang Starr’s “Above The Clouds,” and Kanye West & Jay-Z’s “Otis” perfect songs. Each of those instrumentals, whether it’s the electricity and grittiness of Havoc and Prodigy on “Shook Ones Pt. ll” or the boastful lifestyles of the rich and famous on “Otis,” captures the essence of their respective artists as well as intensifies their impact on the listener. On “Nosetalgia,” the culmination of Pusha T’s entire rap catalog feels like it was thrown into a blender and came out the other end of the speakers. It feels like the undisputed choice you would make if you needed to describe Pusha T to someone in one song.
The difference between a great song and a perfect song is often the point in a rapper’s career in which the song was crafted and released. In other words, the release of a song in the context of an emcee’s career matters. If “Still D.R.E.” was just another hit single on Dre’s second album, as opposed to one of the last singles fans had to hold onto for almost two decades, maybe we remember it as just another classic. If “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” didn’t feel like Kanye at his peak boastfulness before people started to care, or if “Devil In A New Dress” didn’t feel like the dying breath of the “old Kanye,” then maybe they too would only remember them as great and not perfect.
Whether a song captures the watershed moment for a rapper’s career, their absolute peak, or their legacy in one track, the perfect rap song hinges on the mind space of the author at the time of a song’s creation. For Pusha T, “Nosetalgia” came at the peak of his career.
Before 2013, Pusha was a rising solo artist carrying on the legacy of Clipse after brother No Malice pursued other ventures. After 2015, Pusha would become president of G.O.O.D. Music and would be cemented into a bigger role in the grand design of the label. On My Name Is My Name, and more specifically “Nosetalgia,” Pusha’s popularity was at its pinnacle, he was coming off of several other successful singles from the album in “Pain,” “Sweet Serenade” and “Numbers on The Boards.” It was at that exact moment, that perfect moment when Pusha was no longer just one-half of Clipse, nor was he focused on other artists besides himself. Every ounce of creativity went into “Nosetalgia” and out came a song that could cement that moment.
Yet, it’s not just Pusha’s moment that was cemented by “Nosetalgia,” but Kendrick’s as well. On the heels of arguably the best album of the decade in good kid, m.A.A.d city, along with his “Where were you when you heard Big Sean’s 'Control'?” moment, Kendrick’s popularity was at an all-time high. He was the rapper everyone wanted on their song, let alone their music video, and Pusha T was going toe to toe with him on a deep cut record at the end of his album. When you watch the video, the two share an unmistakable respect and rapport, and even though the “Nosetalgia” music video trades quick cuts and bright lights for tracking shots and black and white. It’s a force to be reckoned with visually (despite Kendrick’s inability to put his hand in his jacket pocket). The track is a meeting of two of rap’s biggest names, on a gritty drug rap track, trading two of the best verses of the year on a song neither was required to make. What’s more perfect than that?
The last component, sustainability, is always the most subjective as it deals only with the idea of how much you can hit play on a song before it gets old; a perfect song could never do that. Although it seems difficult to pin down, songs that have perfected this have been right in front of us for years. Think Kendrick Lamar’s “Cartoon & Cereal,” OutKast’s “Elevators (Me & You)” and “Aquemini,” and Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” and Hypnotize.” Consider how often you’ve heard Scarface’s “On My Block,” Beanie Sigel’s “The Truth,” or JAY-Z’s “U Don't Know” and likely never considered touching the aux cord. Perfect sustainability in a song is what pushes it past every great, popular rap song that pales in comparison, and this is where “Nosetalgia” once again succeeds.
“Nosetalgia” isn’t as intrinsically popular as Jay-Z’s “Holy Grail” or Drake's "All Me," both of which were also released in 2013, but the combination of all the previous variables in a perfect song is what boosts it over massive radio hits like these. Although there are perfect songs that did become popular on the radio, like Nelly’s “Country Grammar,” most popular songs eventually wear out their welcome. If “Nosetalgia”—as well as Pusha T—was Marlo Stanfield, then strictly popular rap songs are Avon Barksdale, another character from The Wire; one may seem tamer than the other, but the latter eventually wears out his welcome with those who have their eyes, or ears, on it for too long.
Music is best listened to, at first, without trying to understand every single one of its intricacies. Like a finished equation, the end result is often something genuinely interesting and deserves to be processed in that way initially. But what do we do after that, though? And how do we then separate the different echelons of music we ingest? That is where the components of a song, and more specifically a perfect rap song, begin to matter.
Each and every component—every single choice and decision—on a song matters when it comes to perfection. We as an audience just need to know how to identify the variables.