Young, Rich and Tasteless

Published on December 14th, 2018

Alex writes about the appeal of Pusha T.

On the subway to a concert on a Tuesday night, I thought one thing as I listened to the same 76 seconds of music over and over again: I live every day simply waiting for somebody to ask me how I feel about the first 76 seconds of Pusha T’s Hard Piano. About an hour later, a bunch of people threw various liquids at Pusha T while he was onstage and I figured I could find a way to work those thoughts into this.

For the uninformed, here is the absolute bare minimum of what you need to know to continue down this path with me:

  • Pusha T is one of my favourite rappers, and is generally considered one of the best rappers working today.
  • Pusha T dislikes Drake, something that pretty much begins with a dispute over a Lil’ Wayne clothing choice and his then-compadre Baby not paying The Neptunes for the beat to What Happened to That Boy.
  • Earlier this year, Pusha T put out a song called The Story of Adidon, a song about Drake’s previously undiscussed child and his producer/bestie 40, who has multiple sclerosis.
  • For that single’s cover art, Push used a photo of Drake in blackface that Drake shot in 2007 and nobody seemed to be aware of.
  • At his recent Camp Flog Gnaw set, Pusha T had FUCK DRAKE onscreen behind him for a portion of his performance.
  • In a conversation about Pusha, Drake recently said, “Someone’s gonna punch you in the fucking face.”
  • On a Tuesday night, Pusha T performed in Toronto, home of one Aubrey Graham. And here we are.

After about 30 minutes and somewhere in the vicinity of a million songs – it is always hard to track time when rappers have lots of short but popular features that must make their set list – a bunch of people threw drinks at Push. Not an uncommon thing to happen at a show, I suppose, but this was clearly a concerted effort and this concerted effort was occurring during the middle of a song. (At the risk of stating the obvious, usually when people lose their shit at a show, it’s at the beginning of one of the artist’s most popular songs; you throw your drink and mosh when the beat drops on Numbers on the Boards, not halfway through FIFA.)

Approximately four seconds later, right around the time most people realized all the factors I just ran through, Pusha left the stage. Then a couple people got the absolute shit kicked out of them, and about fifteen people ran out the back of the venue. The house lights went on and some left, assuming the show was over.

pusha1

It’s odd being present at something that you know will quickly becomes a news event. It was kind of fascinating, being present for an event that seemed pretty clear but would quickly become fodder for misinformation on Twitter: some temporarily reported that the person getting pummelled onstage was Pusha himself, which was untrue. Nobody around me really knew what was happening; confusion was rampant, but one consistent thought popped into a lot of people’s minds simultaneously. Pretty much immediately, I sent my sister an ineloquent, alcohol-fuelled two-word text: “Drake sucks.”

After a handful of minutes, Pusha T came back out onstage, with the house lights still on and a collection of security guards with him, including one holding a 2×4 that looked like it had been ripped off a wall approximately 30 seconds ago. Push immediately launched into Infrared, the last song on his album Daytona, and the most pointed anti-Drake song in his official catalogue. For obvious reasons, Pusha was palpably angry, and this part of the performance was pretty incredible. After the song ended and his DJ started playing something Pusha was no longer in the mood to perform, Push yelled, “GANGSTER SHIT ONLY!” This lead to his verse on the I Don’t Like remix and again, this was all pretty incredible, and naturally the remaining crowd was suitably amped up at this point. Then Pusha was told the cops were shutting the show down and that was more or less it. Water bottles and a beat down won’t slow this train, but law enforcement will.

Upon his return to the stage, Pusha accused Drake of paying a group of people to bring this particular ruckus to his show, and that’s certainly what I assumed had happened after Push left the stage, what the message to my sister was meant to indicate. Coming back on stage, Pusha knew he controlled how this would be framed, and he framed it in a way meant to make Drake look like a sucker. Whether this was a conscious decision by Push or one made entirely out of rage, that became the immediate takeaway for most people. The more I think about it, the more idiotic that sounds, but Drake is just the type of idiot to do it.

This is the part where I expound upon my text to my sister, where I elucidate just how “Drake sucks.” Now, in the past I have written pleasantries about Drake’s work, but that was many years ago, many albums ago. Post-Nothing was the Same, Drake becomes almost comically boring, and all of his subsequent records have felt like the work of a lost talent. God’s Plan is the hip-hop equivalent of a nap, and his most recent album Scorpion is the hip-hop equivalent of being in a coma (and is coincidentally the length of a short coma).

Here is a quick, reductionist tracing of Drake’s musical career through his albums:

  • Thank Me Later – Fine.
  • Take Care – Mostly dope.
  • Nothing was the Same – Dope.
  • Everything since – Consistently boring and mostly awful.

When I listen to Drake music today, I hear somebody who feels so secure in their position in life that they don’t need to work all that hard to keep their stature. Drake is the biggest star in hip-hop today, and he knows it. He will never do anything to sacrifice that place in the food chain, because he loves where he is. And that’s fine. That’s his prerogative. Live your life, Aubrey. But I don’t have to fucking like it.

A modern Drake album doesn’t sound like something put together as a musical statement in any capacity; it mostly sounds like a bunch of songs that were released simply to be there. Songs on Scorpion constantly feel like they are simply something instead of nothing. Drake feels like a musician for a world of people who like to casually use the word “content;” he wants to be the person who people are listening to, so he continually gives them said content, so they don’t have to travel elsewhere for it. Drake is the Netflix autoplay of rappers, the Marvel Cinematic Universe of hip-hop. If you never give the people anything that strays from the agreed upon order of events, you never risk losing them, and if you keep giving them mediocre replications of what they already liked, they’ll never look around for anything else. But in this scenario the artist in question also never risks doing anything good.

Listening to Take Care and Nothing was the Same again, there is some legitimately beautiful work on there. The music is layered, and the beats are lush. Drake will always have moments of being a trying lyrical personality, but at least it feels like he is trying to be a person on these albums. After Nothing was the Same, he leaves his personhood behind; he becomes “Drake” at all times.

pusha-t

Pusha T’s career, on the other hand, is one of somebody who has had to remain hungry. After Clipse’s lone hit single, Grindin’, Pusha and his brother Malice had to wait years to release their follow-up, the stellar Hell Hath No Fury. (The delays, caused by their label, lead to the equally stellar Re-Up Gang mixtapes though, so at least there’s that.) Then they waited through another delay waiting to release Till the Casket Drops in 2009, after which Malice found God and decided he no longer wanted to be a part of the music Clipse made. And that’s fine. That’s his prerogative. Live your life, Gene. But Terrence doesn’t have to follow you.

Luckily for hip-hop, Pusha seemed to get along well with Kanye West. After being thoroughly planted in the sessions for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (and the related GOOD Friday releases), the path for Push’s solo career was set: stick with Kanye, you’ll get ahead. And Pusha’s lyrical influence was clearly felt on what will forever remain the best work in Kanye’s illustrious career: Kanye writes his own lyrics, sure, but not without bouncing them around a room of thoughtful writers for improvement, one of whom at this time happened to be Pusha. Kanye’s personality shone through on the album, but not without the precision and snarling charm of Pusha’s influence*. And the two verses Push actually put his own voice to on the album were pretty fucking stellar.

*To be clear: this is hypothesis, but confident hypothesis.

Push’s verse on Runaway is well-known enough that I don’t really need to break it down; the song is a classic pop song, and Pusha T was there through plenty of performances at the VMAs and SNL and other televised shows with acronym titles. But Pusha’s work on So Appalled is where he really shines; eight years later this is still the easiest example to point to in order to prove Pusha’s greatness. But first, a brief interlude.

Here’s where we address the elephant in the room, the relative lack of variety in the content of Pusha T verses. Is it true that he mostly writes about drug dealing? Yes. Is it odd that a weird kid who has never really been around real drugs became attached to this kind of writing? Probably. Do I view either of those previous two facts as a problem? Absolutely not. I like what I like; as James once said on a podcast, you don’t have to be a cop to like Lethal Weapon, and I don’t have to be a drug dealer to like songs about dealing drugs. But that’s almost beside the point, because the true skill of Push isn’t always present in what he says so much as how he says it. 

Rappers like Pusha T tend to fall into the frustratingly vague category of “your favourite rapper’s favourite rapper,” but nobody ever really explains what that means. To the best of my understanding, that category tends to include people who say more or less the same thing repeatedly in gorgeous ways but, more importantly, it includes rappers who have a borderline alien sense of internal rhythm. Black Thought is another example of this kind of rapper, and Rakim is the style’s forefather: these are people whose words are delivered at such a perfectly measured tempo that it feels like they are their own percussion, their own click track. If you listen to a rapper like this go a capella or over a track with no drums, this is where their skills become truly evident, but it is present at all times. (Pusha T’s appearance on Swizz Beatz’ Cold Blooded is a solid recent example, as is Black Thought’s magnetic, ten-minute Funkmaster Flex freestyle from last winter.) The flow isn’t always adventurous, in a way that somebody like Method Man is famous for, but its perfection is stunning. Back to So Appalled.

Listen to how Pusha delivers the second half of the verse: “Range Rove / leather roof / love war / fuck a truce / still move a bird like I’m in bed with Mother Goose,” like he’s bouncing around the words in perfect time. The way he says them, it feels like the words are all doing individual dance moves but somehow working perfectly in concert with all the others around them. I may have a layman’s knowledge of rapping, but I know this is majestic. Some combination of Pusha T’s Virginia accent, the restrained energy he puts behind his words, and the slight manipulation he delivers them with creates something I can listen to over and over and over and over. There are few rappers who I will recall lines from memory for timing-based reasons; Pusha is basically the whole list. I have a hard time going more than a week without thinking about how he says “In your thousand dollar joggers / as you brag about your dollars / is it a shame that a platinum rapper’s mother lives in squalor” on Crutches, Crosses, Caskets. I could easily write another 1000 words on my passion for Numbers on the Boards, but in short: the appeal of this song in totality is its uncommon percussion that Pusha rides like a click track.

Pusha’s first official solo album, the album Numbers on the Boards was made for, is called My Name is My Name. It is a very good album that isn’t quite great, which is basically how I would describe every Clipse record to that point; if there’s one truth about Push’s career it’s that he tends to mix some of the absolute best work in hip-hop with some of the most mediocre. And that’s fine. That’s his prerogative. Live your life, Terrence. Make those songs with Chris Brown. But I don’t have to fucking like them.

Earlier this year, Pusha’s most recent album DAYTONA was released to universal acclaim. As the first leg of Kanye’s month in a Wyoming ranch studio where he apparently tried to become a Soundcloud rapper, Push’s release was short; the goal was all wheat no chaff, all killer no filler, all Numbers on the Boards no Sweet Serenade. Its brevity became its only flaw, although including a middling verse from Kanye West and a Rick Ross verse from Rick Ross could be described as flaws. Nevertheless, the album is great. Usually when Pusha T puts out an album it includes approximately 20 minutes of perfection, the albums are usually closer to 50 minutes long; Daytona got the running time down to just over 21. Daytona is unquestionably my favourite album of the year, and I say that knowing Vince Staples put out an album last month.

 

It feels odd to talk a gang of shit about Drake for doing the same thing repeatedly and then praise Pusha for doing a different same thing repeatedly. But there’s something to be said for Pusha if only because what he does, he does with fervour. This is a wholly intangible thing to discuss, I know; I would imagine there’s an equivalent, darkest timeline version of Alex who is a Drake fan talking about how Drake’s genre versatility separates him from all comers. Something about it just feels wrong, though. If Pusha T is resting on his laurels, then Drake resides on the comfiest La-Z-Boy the world has ever constructed.

As a long time fan of hip-hop, I have often picked sides of disagreements that I qualify as fundamentally stupid. For whatever reason, hip-hop is simply a combative genre of music. The Pusha T/Drake issue is no different: I think it’s kind of shitty to talk about somebody’s kid with no clear reasoning behind why you’re doing it. Making fun of somebody’s best friend who has multiple sclerosis is pretty much the definition of being a shithead. That said, I still get it. Drake does make lazy music, and it always feels like he makes it quickly. It’s not hard to imagine somebody whose skills are built around perfection despising somebody who just kinda throws shit out there, calls it Hotline Bling, does some weird dance moves and becomes the only thing anybody wants to talk about. Pusha T and I have little in common, and I disagree with his opinions constantly, but I understand.

pusha2

Now seems as good of time as any to discuss the first verse of Hard Piano. Pusha T’s actual verse is relatively standard Push, which is to say it is close to perfect*, but not necessarily better than his work anywhere else on the album. There are some Push based highlights – “the Warhols on my wall paint a war story” – and his timing is unsurprisingly perfect, but the real highlight happens when the beat temporarily ramps up around the thirty-second mark.

*The opening line is more than a dash misogynist, but you can’t be a hip-hop die hard without occasionally realizing you’re supporting a deeply misogynist genre of music, so that’s a conversation for a different day and a different therapist.

It’s tough to describe feeling passion for a small portion of a song because of the ethereal nature of the best aspects of music; this is why so many music critics frequently sound like idiots. But this song is so good I don’t care. As Pusha says, “look at my new digs,” the already spectacular beat gains another element: a slow procession of keys begins. The rest of the beat that we have heard to this point is a jaggedly chopped sample, but these keys are all original accenting, as the keys are lightly tapped and held to add an entirely new, borderline heavenly environment in contrast with the messy beat underneath. Add into that a touch of vocals – basically people humming along with the piano’s notes, so low in the mix you could miss them entirely – and it’s so gorgeous that I stopped paying attention to Pusha entirely the first time I heard it, even though the beat works perfectly in concert with his words.

What Pusha does in the beginning of his verse is separate himself from others; he lists a collection of people he’s better than (janitors, amateurs, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer) and then invites you to look at the palace said separation has built for him, which is where those keys kick in. Toward the end of this section, but not the end of the verse, Pusha says “throw the phone if you hear a click,” meant to indicate that if somebody is listening you should hang up. Instead of the keys and vocals simply cutting off, to indicate simply hanging up, there is a slight hitch in the accents before they go away entirely, as Push again starts rapping about an exterior world, moving to his car as he Art Basels the bezel. Again, words working perfectly in concert with the music.

This is where I must mention that Kanye West is the producer of this song, and Andrew Dawson and Mike Dean receive co-producer and additional production credits respectively. It’s entirely possible the musical switch was not Pusha’s idea, borderline likely. It’s equally possible that it wasn’t Kanye’s idea either (for no definable reason, and having not read the credits at the time, my immediate thought was that the keys were a classic Mike Dean accent). The additional vocals sound like a vintage Kanye addition, but the keys scream Mike Dean. Either way, as music at this level is, this is a song made by a team and released by an individual, so for the sake of conversational convenience, to the named individual must go the spoils.

Together, this collection of thought ends up sounding like exactly the opposite of what bothers me about Drake: Hard Piano is a bunch of people working much harder than they actually have to in order to maintain their stature. If Pusha T released a mediocre album at this point, would I love it? Almost certainly yes. If Kanye released a collection of mediocre beats for Pusha to rap over, would I love them? Almost certainly yes*. These bona fides have been proven; the Warhols are already on the wall. Instead of resting on the laurels of his salmon coloured VMA suit, though, Pusha raps with more care than he did back in 2002, even though he is now the president of a music label. Everybody could have said, “That’s fine, let’s make a new piece of content,” but instead they decided to add another layer to underscore their own solid work.

*It should be noted that I have complicated feelings about modern day Kanye West’s music, from Yeezus to The Life of Pablo to Ye. But for somebody who has been obsessed with Kanye beats for fifteen-plus years, it is not a stretch to say some of his work on Daytona is on par with the best work of his career, especially that beat switch on Hard Piano (and the loop on The Games We Play).

The hatred between Drake and Pusha T is fundamentally stupid. But I understand. Pusha’s work on Daytona is ethereal and hard to pinpoint, whereas Drake seems to make music specifically to point at numbers. In a world obsessed with analytics and proving things through bullshit data, Drake is now a man of the time, Push a man out of time. And as diametrically opposed rappers, they must hate each other.

Even if you have everything, there’s somebody else who has something you want. Drake will never be beloved by quote unquote hip-hop heads like Pusha T is, because Drake became so popular so quickly that his place in hip-hop history was pretty much etched in stone by 2012. Drake is unquestionably a hip-hop pioneer, more so than Pusha T is, but classical hip-hop thought will never recognize him as such. Pusha T is an example of the best of what the genre has to offer, based on what we have all quietly determined are the best aspects of hip-hop. He is timeless, because he keeps perfect time. But he will never appeal to the masses, because the best aspects of hip-hop (the best aspects of pretty much any genre of any art form) are never what appeal to the masses. The best Pusha can be to the common person is the guy in the background of a Kanye show. He’ll get people like me to write thousands of words about him, but he’ll never get soccer moms to know his name. Unless, of course, one of those soccer mom-beloved rappers pays a bunch of people to throw drinks at him.

This brings us back to the question: did Drake actually pay people to throw drinks at Pusha T, or did Drake fans protective of a tragically-named The Six do so under their own volition? Given the financial aspects of it, what makes the most sense is Drake paid people, because Drake is the type of person who has enough money to bring an armoured car full of cash to a strip club for Future’s birthday. It’s entirely possible that Drake fans took Drake’s suggestion that Pusha T should be punched in the fucking face and decided to try to do that (the drinks seemed to be the diversion meant to cover up the couple trying to get on stage to fight Push). Sometimes people with a lot of money say things about other people with a lot of money and then people with a lot less money are all like, “Sure.”

On what used to be called wax, this is a battle of rich vs. richer. Drake has armoured trucks at a strip club, but Pusha wears plenty of terrible Prada shirts that can’t possibly be cheap. It seems fundamentally stupid from afar, and it is. But as I say every time a professional sports league goes on strike, “In a battle between millionaires and billionaires, I will always side with the millionaire.”

On Tuesday night I saw a different kind of dispute up close, the rich vs. the less so (or the rich vs. the pauper paid by the richer) and I can assure you it was all deeply stupid. The king doesn’t need to solidify his place on the throne by throwing drinks at another member of the same castle, even if that member likes to talk a lot of shit behind the king’s back. Sometimes, you’re a bad king. The problem isn’t the disagreement at all, so much as the king’s desire to stay the king. Historically, one who is on top only wants to remain there, and seems willing to do anything to do just that. But it’s fucking stupid.

I will never properly pick sides of this debate. It is clear I prefer Pusha T’s music, and his Neal Brennan line on Don’t Fuck With Me is the high point of the argument writing-wise, but I’m certainly not going to get punched in the eye for it. The appeal of Pusha is to do rote music better than anybody before him has done, and maintaining an absurdly petty argument is the worst part of that rote music. Did Birdman pay The Neptunes in 2002 for the What Happened to that Boy beat? Does it fucking matter? Do Pharrell and the Neal Brennan of The Neptunes miss that $100 000? By 2002 they were working on Justin Timberlake records and McDonald’s jingles, so I doubt they missed a car payment because of Birdman.

And all of this continues fifteen years later, evolved into different disagreements about different stupid arguments that don’t matter. What happens? A bunch of people you have never heard of get shorted because one guy doesn’t like that another guy said a third guy wrote his lyrics for him. Pusha is mad about how hard he works, so he screams into a void, and Drake is mad at being accused of not working hard enough, so he screams into a void. We all listen, but the screaming is not the real reason why most do, and those who chose to side with the king instead of the citizens are forever idiotic. In a battle between millionaires and billionaires and people who paid $40 to see a show on a cold Tuesday night, I will always side with the third option.

Reply

Comment guidelines, edit this message in your Wordpress admin panel