Consistency in hip-hop is a virtue, yet its flames are extinguished by time and relevancy far too often. Rappers have always struggled with a relentlessly changing industry and dwindling attention spans from fans, and to maneuver through those obstacles takes a specific type of ability. This is where Pusha-T enters the conversation.
Referring to Pusha-T as nothing more than a drug rapper is at the very least pejorative. Although he might not be a chart-topping hit-maker, he is a singular talent lyrically; no one else is able to sew together such acute storytelling with supreme pop culture quips and punchlines that spend just enough time jabbing you in the mouth before sending an irreparable body shot.
His solo work has consistently found him expanding his own narrative while continuing to strike a perfect balance between confronting and embracing the darkness in his music. It’s only right we rank his 10 best songs. Please note, however, all Clipse songs and Pusha-T guest features, however amazing, were left out of contention for purposes of this list.
[Editor's Note: In light of the release of 2018's 'DAYTONA,' we've updated this list and removed "Crutches, Crosses, Caskets," "Open Your Eyes," and "I Am Forgiven."]
10. “Pain” ft. Future (My Name Is My Name, 2013)
Before Future became a legend, and before Kanye traded in his MPC for an InfoWars T-shirt, the pair, along with Pusha and veteran producer No I.D., came together for one of the most booming tracks found on My Name Is My Name. “Pain” is a textbook Pusha song that doesn’t deviate from his formula, but it excels at illuminating the darkest points of Pusha’s psyche.
In Pusha's mind, pain is relative to its beholder, and the worst fears of a drug dealer, such as “finding out poor, while the feds knock at your door," envelop most listeners in a world in which certain choices can separate one from becoming Trayvon or Avon (Barksdale). “Pain” isn’t Pusha-T’s magnum opus, but it resides in one of the most hypnotically frightening corners of his catalog.
9. “Infrared” (DAYTONA, 2018)
The catalyst that set off an entire summer of tabloid headlines, two subsequent diss tracks, and the hidden child heard 'round the world, “Infrared” is as understatedly menacing as the 808 drums bubbling in the background behind Pusha. "Calculated" is the first word that comes to mind, as everything about “Infrared” feels like a perfectly designed trap. Pusha’s career has always about survival, whether over other artists he feels superior to, or through the trials of his own career thus far, and “Infrared” is a striking retread of all the missteps he managed to avoid.
8. “H.G.T.V. Freestyle” (2016)
When Pusha-T chose My Name Is My Name, an infamous quote from The Wire’s Marlo Stanfield, as an album title, it felt like the stroke of genius that encapsulated everything about him as an artist. Like Marlo, a man of few words who uses every breath and movement purposefully, it’s often Pusha-T’s minimalistic moments in which he becomes otherworldly. “H.G.T.V. Freestyle” captures that essence perfectly.
Laced with low, rumbling Mike WiLL production, and only a two-minute runtime, “H.G.T.V. Freestyle” is a one-off monstrosity of lyricism and flair, and Pusha never uses anything but his inside voice. The self-proclaimed “Blowbama” threatens the newest batch of rappers destined to be “Uber drivers” and reminds critics who want to box him in that “I walk amongst the clouds so your ceilings ain’t real.” Like Marlo, fewer words from Pusha only increases their lethality.
7. “Trouble on My Mind” ft. Tyler, The Creator (Fear of God II: Let Us Pray, 2011)
In a vacuum, the lead single from Fear of God ll: Let Us Pray may feel like one of Pusha's most left-field choices, with Goblin-era Tyler, The Creator as its guest feature and a Neptunes and Left Brain beat equipped with all of the quintessential quirkiness of Clipse and Odd Future projects. However, “Trouble on My Mind” was not only a perfect sonic juxtaposition to Pusha’s career to that point, but a watershed moment for how impactful Pusha could be as his own artist.
“Trouble on My Mind” is the perfect contrast between Tyler's anarchic randomness and a much looser Pusha-T reveling in the back-and-forth between with one of his biggest fans. It was proof that Pusha wasn’t willing to age out of hip-hop without a fight, and where many of his generation’s contemporaries may not have embraced an artist like Tyler at that point, he proved that he could, in fact, “put the hipsters with felons and thugs” and make it captivating.
6. “Untouchable” (King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude, 2015)
At times, listening to Pusha-T can feel like watching James Harden play basketball. Like Harden, Pusha is patient when he has the ball in his hands; his first move is never to back you down to the basket or jack up a quick shot but to trap and isolate you with metaphors bubbling below the surface and sharp imagery before he dances his way to the bucket. Featuring haunting Timbaland production that could be best described as The Twilight Zone meets Ready to Die, "Untouchable" is a Boy Scout knot of drug metaphors, disses, and political quips, delivered in a three-minute burst.
Somewhere between lines like “I am like U2, I am like Bono with the Edge / In Mexico, fuck Donald and his pledge” and “My thoughts spilling over / The soft ceiling’s open, I CrossFit the cocoa,” you'll notice white residue beginning to form underneath your fingernails, and several money-counting machines running at full speed in the background. “Untouchable,” like Pusha's Narcos reference, is as close to Pablo Escobar as we’re ever getting on wax.
5. “Alone in Vegas” (Fear of God II: Let Us Pray, 2011)
Despite its grandiose Nottz’s production and Pusha’s lyricism, "Alone in Vegas," the outro on Fear of God II, is about emptiness and isolation. Most of Pusha’s catalog is either a tightrope walk performed to amaze or a contained episode of brash mafioso rap, and where “Alone in Vegas” differs is Pusha’s ability to finally show the cold and lonely conclusion of where those narratives eventually lead.
Like Las Vegas, an isolated city in the desert designed to entrap you in its superficial design without providing lasting fulfillment, Pusha’s lyrics about those around him no longer there, like his brother No Malice or his incarcerated ex-manager Anthony Gonzales, only serve to pose the question of whether it was all really worth it. From those invincible times and “party nights with the A-list” to bailing out his best friends, even Pusha’s most glittery moments feel hollow and burnt out. For once, that’s exactly the point.
4. "If You Know You Know" (DAYTONA, 2018)
The most impressive characteristic of DAYTONA is the absurd amount of confidence, even for Pusha-T. From the minute he utters “Pullin' up in that new toy” over the sharp howls and ticking hi-hats of the production, the entire world feels like it stops in the wake of Pusha’s brashness. “If You Know You Know,” the sweeping drug kingpin anthem of the summer, is a transportive experience to a land of audacious luxury items, skyboxes “right next to Riri’s,” and the very thin line between wins and wiretaps.
3. "The Games We Play" (DAYTONA, 2018)
Only slightly edging out “If You Know, You Know” as the best track on DAYTONA, “The Games We Play” is a love story of the strangest kind. Pusha boasts about bottle service races, drug mummies, and caviar facials, all in under three minutes, not for the sole sake of braggery but to remind us that his world is a duality of grime and glitz that he wouldn’t remove himself from even if he could.
2. “Numbers on the Boards” (My Name Is My Name, 2013)
If the iconic bank robbery scene from Michael Mann’s Heat were a song, it would be “Numbers on the Boards.” Pusha-T is Neil McCauley, organizing what is essentially a musical crime spree of kingpin raps like “Whether rappin' or I’m rappin' to a whore / Might reach back and relapse to wrapping up this raw” and a vibe so menacing you feel like an accomplice just for listening.
“Numbers on the Boards” excels not just because of its entrancing production, executed in collaboration by Don Cannon, Kanye West, and 88-Keys, or because Pusha intersects JAY-Z’s “Rhyme No More” with bars about Roc-A-Fella’s Kareem "Biggs" Burke, but because not since the days of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... and Supreme Clientele has drug dealing sounded like the most electric profession on the planet.
1. “Nosetalgia” ft. Kendrick Lamar (My Name Is My Name, 2013)
I once wrote about how “Nosetalgia” was the perfect rap song, but it’s possible that it’s even more than that. Of all the solo Pusha-T songs, it is "Nosetalgia" that serves as a culmination of his entire career as well as the effects of the life he once led.
Its simplicity is what ultimately proves its genius. There is no hook, only Nottz’s spliced sampling over screeching guitar licks and an echoing drum pattern. Instead, it relays the story of two “drug” dealers: Pusha’s self-reflecting, albeit proud distributor “cuttin' school with his jewels on,” and Kendrick Lamar as the young man who learned to push his own lyrical “product” from the environment that those like Pusha created around him. It’s a story about the heavenly euphoria of being on top of the drug trade, the hell of watching your world around it succumb to it, and the cyclical nature of how those enmeshed in it eventually learn its more effective tactics.
One can only hope that Pusha-T’s upcoming album—if it exists—channels the essence of what makes “Nosetalgia” so impactful.