Sunday, October 13, 2013

album review: 'my name is my name' by pusha t

I've got to be honest, it took a lot for me to get remotely excited about this album.

Hell, if I'm going to be completely honest, it's taken a lot for me to get excited about Pusha T as an artist altogether - which is really frustrating because everything I've heard about the guy suggests that I would actually like him as a rapper. According to the majority of the critical press, he's one of the few artists Kanye West signed to G.O.O.D. Music who was actually any good, and from what I remember from Cruel Summer last year, I think I liked what he put on the table. I remember thinking he was better than Big Sean and 2 Chainz, but then again, that's not hard by any stretch of the mind, and it brings to light a big problem I've had with rap music recently: it appears that everybody's critical standards for technical rhyming abilities have just plummeted while mine haven't moved. I look at rappers who have been laughed out of the rap game in the 90s or even the 2000s for sloppy flow or bad lyrics somehow gaining critical acclaim when their subject matter doesn't back it up. 

So thus when I'm confronted with a rapper like Pusha T, who gets critical acclaim because he's got a good flow and interconnected, well-written lyrics, I'm left a little unmoved because that's my standard for good rap music - if you can't do that, I have a hard time understanding why you were given a career (looking at you, 2 Chainz)! If you just deliver that without adequate subject matter behind it or anything interesting to say, I don't really have much to praise besides basic competence.

But to be fair to the guy, I'll admit I haven't had much of a chance to peruse a lot of Pusha T's material outside of guest verses, so I figured now would be a good time as any to take a look at his big solo debut, overloaded with guest stars as it is (which I'll co-opt Nathan Rabin and coin 'The Master P effect'). If he's looking for an opportunity to establish his presence and cred in the industry, this long-delayed album titled My Name Is My Name should be worth something, right?

Ugh. Well, I'm not going to say that this album is worthless, but there's not a whole lot I can say that I really liked about this album. My Name Is My Name is, a little surprisingly, somewhat characteristic of recent debut hip-hop albums: initially focused on establishing the main performer before surrounding him with an abundance of unneeded and unwanted guest stars; completely lacking in any sort of coherent focus, and wildly uneven when it comes to quality. And it's surprising because Pusha T has been in the rap industry for a fair length of time, over ten years, so it's a little astounding - and worrisome - that his debut album is as messy as this one is. To put it another way, you can tell that it was recorded over a period of almost two years and was somewhat cobbled together into something that could sell.

But okay, Pusha T's more of a singles artist, so let's set aside album coherency and talk about the songs and Pusha T himself. I'll say this for the guy, his delivery is often quite strong with a lot of slick bravado that he can back up with good wordplay. Sure, he's arrogant, but unlike, say, Jay Z, he sounds like he's more invested in his material which does a fair bit to make him compelling. His flow is reminiscent at points of Kanye, but that's not a bad thing, because Pusha T often has good enough rapping to back it up. In fact, the rapper I was reminded of most wasn't Kanye, but Jadakiss - it's kind of amazing how much their voices and delivery occasionally sound alike, and once I noticed it, I couldn't stop noticing it!

And I'll say this for Pusha T - you can tell he puts a lot of effort into his rhymes and wordplay. From a technical standpoint, Pusha T is a strong lyricist, with a good flow and the technical skill to have his rhymes naturally flow together, with concepts and double entendres flowing from line to line. And really, it's a sad fact that on that basis alone, a lot of people are going to fall head over heels for this album when really Pusha T is doing here what used to be standard in hip-hop music. But it doesn't really help matters that there are only a few glimmering moments where this album really produces some hard-hitting, potent punchlines or moments that rose above the admittedly excellent set-up. The ones that work best for me were on 'Hold On', where he delivers a blisteringly strong verse against racial profiling, and the album highlight 'Nosetalgia', where he takes what might have been another verse glorifying drug dealing and throws whole new waves of context and deeper meaning to it through contrast with Kendrick Lamar's verse exploring life from an addict's point-of-view (in this case, his father). 

And on the topic of Kendrick Lamar, I should mention that there are some surprisingly good guest contributions to this album as well. Rick Ross probably delivers the best verse of his career on 'Hold On' with way more inflection and emotion than I've ever heard from him (I mean, holy shit, when did this guy actually start trying?), and unsurprisingly, Kendrick Lamar continues to prove that he's one of the best talents in the rap game right now. And on the hooks... well, The-Dream is okay with '40 Acres' (a song I was hoping would land with a lot more impact than it did for me), but the real surprise was Chris Brown of all people on 'Sweet Serenade' - his voice might be buried under a ton of audio effects, but as much as I'd like to deny it, he does deliver a good chorus here.

If only the rest of the guest stars were anywhere close to as good. Future continues to waste everybody's time on 'Pain' (can somebody please explain how the hell this twit got a career?), Jeezy tries to deliver on 'No Regrets' but doesn't do much, and as for 2 Chainz and Big Sean... dear Christ, their collaboration with Pusha T 'Who I Am' is a disaster of a track. None of the rappers here are anywhere close to their A-game - including Pusha T, who just sounds lazy - but 2 Chainz and Big Sean continue their trend of ruining songs from good rappers by delivering verses that would have gotten them laughed out of a middle-school talent competition! And yet, that song isn't the worst on the album - no, that comes courtesy of guest star Kelly Rowland and is titled 'Let Me Love You' (stealing the title from a fairly decent R&B track from Mario). If you've seen my Danny Brown review, you'd probably deduced that I'm not the biggest fan of 'gangsta love' songs, and that's precisely what this is in the worst possible way. Pusha T sounds asleep, his rhyming is lazy, Kelly Rowland contributes nothing, and the entire song feels like an unnecessary throwback to the early 2000s that nobody wanted! 

So what about the instrumentation? Well, what about it - it's barely here, in a very minimalist and sparse way to focus all of the attention on the rappers in question. There are a few moments I liked a fair bit, mostly courtesy of production work from Hudson Mohawke and Pharrell (as well as the many bits contributed by Kanye West, who adds his unique touch all over this record), but for the most part, it's watery, bleak, and while expansive, doesn't really use the soundscape particularly well. Of course, the loud squeal of the guitar on 'Nosetalgia' does add some unique flavour and texture to the album, as do the acapella elements on 'S.N.I.T.C.H.', but really, not a lot stood out here. 

But if anything, that's my feeling about this entire album - it feels distinctly less than the sum of its parts, and considering the huge influx of guest stars and writers and producers on My Name Is My Name, it's a little distressing that with all of that effort they couldn't bring something together that was stronger. I'm left wondering what on earth Pusha T was trying to say with this album, if anything at all, which leads me to my biggest issue with this record: outside of 'Hold On' and 'Nosetalgia', this album doesn't seem to do much that we haven't seen done better elsewhere. Pusha T is a great technical lyricist, sure, but without having anything interesting to say - outside of the traditional cash money hoes anthems and the constant references to the fact he used to sell cocaine - it doesn't add up to much of a unique personality. And look, I get that good music doesn't really have to be about something original or have much of a focus, but to me, Pusha T seems to have delivered this album a lot of well-crafted setup but few punchlines. In comparison with his friend Kanye, who has admitted he is a weaker rapper on a technical basis and who has delivered more bad lyrics in a few songs than Pusha T will ever write in his life - and yet still has a ton of compelling, interesting ideas he's trying to express without filter however he can - Pusha T's raps come across like those of a workman: competent, but nothing special.

So would I recommend this album? Ugh, that's not an easy one, because outside of a few moments, it left very little impact on me. For what it is, My Name Is My Name is wildly uneven, with very good highs and very, very deep lows, and in the end, I'm left without a lot of feeling towards this album at all. There's a lot of competence on display and there are some great performances, but it adds up to very little in the end. I feel like I'm being generous here and I'm going to give this album a 6/10 and an extremely tentative recommendation. If you're a fan of Pusha T and like his style and wordplay, you'll find more of the same here, but outside of that, there isn't much. If you're casually interested, check out 'Hold On' and 'Nosestalgia', and maybe 'Sweet Serenade' and '40 Acres'. 

And Pusha T? While I like your flow and your wordplay, I really wish you had something more to say.

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