Looking back over the decade, you’d be hard-pressed to find a run in music more unique than that of Pusha-T. King Push, Blowbama, the “Elron Hubbard of the cupboard,” proved that through the lens of coke raps, an emcee could mine more than just flair and bravado.
Pusha-T transitioned from being the brash and witty half of Clipse, into a lyrical tactician capable of weaving the two ends of the drug dealer spectrum—the lavish peak and the grimy underbelly—into a fully-formed portrait of the American Dream. Through Pusha’s lens, however, that American Dream is equal parts ugly and innovative, ruthless and cunning.
From his initial signing to G.O.O.D. Music in 2010, to the Funk Flex release heard around the world, each year signified a calculated and essential step toward near-superstardom. Not every Pusha album or song hit its mark, but from each misstep came growth as an artist and unwavering confidence that the throne was his—or, at the very least, a chance for a shot at the king. Narrowing his decade down to the five most essential songs is hard, yet those that landed not only feel like timeless classics but are critical to understanding the method to his madness.
“Runaway,” Kanye West featuring Pusha-T (2010)
Although it’s not a Pusha-T song, Kanye West’s “Runaway” is Pusha’s solo career watershed moment. Having been challenged by Kanye to rewrite his verse several times, the end product is a taut, perfectly-paced verse brimming with an almost relentless cockiness.
While Kanye chose to write the record from the perspective of an insecure egotist incapable of sustaining relationships with those he loves, Pusha played the devil’s advocate. His entire verse operates as a dare, a taunt to run away from all the luxury and comfort he can provide, even if it means settling for a selfish prick. It’s the work of an unemotional supervillain engulfing the soft piano keys, and twisting them into a knot of unabashed, but honest, wickedness—the type of wickedness that draws us in.
“Numbers on the Boards” (2013)
In defining Pusha-T’s decade, we can’t skip over his seemingly effortless ability to, when you least expect it, melt your fucking face off. “Numbers on the Boards,” the lead single from his debut solo album My Name Is My Name, is bank heist through sound. The hypnotic bassline, the abrupt cut of the drum samples, and bars like “Mix drug and show money, Biggs Burke on tour,” are all ingredients stirred into a Pyrex of pure menace in under three minutes.
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There are few rappers better than Push with the right production behind them, and “Numbers on the Boards” mixes the sinister quality of “Ride Around Shining” and the confidence of “Comedy Central” into one of the most kinetic rap songs in recent memory. More than any other Pusha track from this decade, its tunnel-visioned structure proves his most gripping songs are those which feel designed to pummel you into the ground.
“Nosetalgia” featuring Kendrick Lamar (2013)
“Nosetalgia” is a perfect rap song—from its searing guitar twangs stabbing through Pusha and Kendrick Lamar’s vocals to the ladder match of lyricism between the two emcees, each tackling the ideas of drug dealing and addiction from separate points of view. The standout selection from My Name Is My Name is the most totemic song in Pusha’s entire catalog. “Nosetalgia” is a stripped-down, brutal journey into the abyss accompanied by Pusha’s particularly twisted bravado and flash.
The brilliance of “Nosetalgia” is in how it functions as both an origin story and a bottle episode within Pusha’s greater catalog, pulling us back to when the only world he’s ever known began to take shape around him for the first time. The record remains on an island, or a peak rather, of greatness, that even King Push himself has never reached ever again.
“If You Know, You Know” (2018)
From the first seconds of the opening track on DAYTONA, as the isolated drums tap in the background behind—“Pullin up in that new toy / The wrist on that boy rockstar like Pink Floyd”—there’s an unmistakable tension in the air. “If You Know, You Know” isn’t the best song on DAYTONA (that would be “The Games We Play”), but it’s the most theatrical Pusha-T song of the decade. It’s expertly paced, sharply written with wordplay and a punchline structure almost too dense to catch in one listen, and almost assuredly the best production of the MAGA-Kanye era of G.O.O.D. Music. The song’s title, an admirable wink at La Cosa Nostra, is a blitzkrieg of sound and substance, and the go-to moment in arguing for Pusha-T as a capable superstar if given the tools and time to win.
“The Story of Adidon” (2018)
One day, possibly in the not-too-distant-future, “The Story of Adidon” will transcend this list in becoming hip-hop’s greatest folk tale. It isn’t just the quotable moments like “You are hiding a child,” or “tick tick tick,” that made this record explode. But the unabashed, calculated evil in Pusha’s every word. At the same time, Drake, the most famous artist of the decade and one of the most untouchable rappers in history, walked directly into a minefield unknowingly.
“The Story of Adidon” is a mixture of King Leonidas’ spear toss in 300 and Frank Lucas’ “You gonna shoot me in front of everybody?” assassination in American Gangster, accompanied by the most puncturing rap lyrics in recent memory. It is absolute proof that, just like Pusha-T’s decade of music, sometimes it’s just more fun to root for the villain.