Wednesday, December 23, 2015

album review: 'king push: darkest before dawn: the prelude' by pusha t

I always get the feeling that I should be a bigger fan of Pusha T than I am.

Because when I reviewed his solo debut My Name Is My Name, I found myself struggling to like it. And going back to it now... well, putting aside how uneven it feels as a whole, Pusha T always struck me as a strong, technically detailed MC that didn't take his coke hustling and gangsta image beyond a wallow in darkness, almost for its own sake. And while he definitely had the voice and production for make something vividly compelling out of it, I kept looking for more of a pay-off that didn't really materialize. And it's not like Pusha T had The Game's pop sensibility or Freddie Gibbs' complicated framing or even the over-the-top gangsta iconography like Rick Ross or Jeezy - you could definitely argue that the methodical grime of Pusha T's best material simply operated as a mirror to the subject matter, nothing more, nothing less. But that's probably been the reason why I've always been a little underwhelmed by Pusha T's work over the past couple of years since Clipse broke up - for such a talented rapper, you'd like to think he'd go for more than that.

And the funny thing is that Pusha T appears to have brought more ambition to the table in the lead-up to his 2016 release King Push - so much so that he dropped an entire album's worth of material as a prelude, a short, brutally dark project released just before 2015 comes to a close as one of the best years for hip-hop in recent memory. And while I remember not being all that enthused about My Name Is My Name, after relistening to it I was interested in this. After all, that album had been stuck in development hell, and now that Pusha T had a firm hand on his career - probably helped by being appointed President of G.O.O.D. Music - maybe this prelude might have real impact for me. So how did Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude turn out?

Well, better than I ever would have expected. If this is considered the prelude to his record next year, I'm definitely intrigued by what Pusha T is going to bringing up, because this album is damn close to great, a dark-edged, ruthlessly methodical record that grows on me with every listen. I was waiting for Pusha T to go deeper, and while you get the layered wordplay, he does go deeper here, with less of a compromised sound and something that does a far better job painting the picture of who Pusha T is beyond any stabs at commercial appeal.

A big part of this is Pusha T himself - and we're going to start with him and his bars, because he is the centerpiece and main focus of this record, and wow, he definitely delivers. Initially I was primed to criticize some of his flows as being a little too reminiscent of Kanye's for comfort, but considering how often he avoids corny punchlines and instead brings together some impressively layered punchlines and vividly detailed bars describing his cocaine trafficking operation... well, it's actually believable, and positioned through some stellar wordplay, with honestly too many great examples to highlight. But the first thing I noticed is how Pusha T frames all of it, because a fair chunk of this record is targeting the rap industry and the culture that perpetuates glorification of 'money, pussy alcohol', and how so much of it is transparent and shallow, a veneer that you can see through when you have an established flow of cash. Pusha T has absolute disdain for rappers who play for the short game and who would rather be more famous than rich, but he also reserves bars for the older titans of hip-hop who don't call them on it. And while there's a part of me that kind of wishes Pusha T would say names, he also doesn't have time for any hip-hop back-and-forth - he's got his coke trade, which at least gives him some stability in a rap industry more focused on image than the bottom line. And as usual, it's a hyper-detailed brand of flexing that could easily be positioned as glorifying his dealing... except that a lot of the subtext seems to highlight how transitory and truly bleak it is, and how so much of it feeds into his vices anyway. He takes time out on 'M.P.A.' to salute girls who hook up with athletes who stay clean instead of gangstas who mistreat them, and he's smart enough to draw focus to his own missteps on how he blew his money on 'Keep Dealing' and had to keep going back to a steady source of income - which Beanie Segel only further emphasizes in a great verse by highlighting how grotesque that life can be. And thus it can feel a little awkward on 'Sunshine' where Pusha T takes aim at police brutality - given he'd easily be a target - but he specifically highlights how he's not speaking for his own crimes, but for real victims - not rappers all in their feelings who are increasingly disconnected from the violence they rap about, but under-educated innocents forced to do what they can to survive. He's using his position - ill-gotten through the dealing but earned through his bars - to thus speak out, especially as important elements of black history had been marginalized. That's another thing I found likable about Pusha T - his goals for wealth and power feel bigger, his reference points aim higher, Pablo Escobar for his criminal actions and Gil-Scott Heron for his poetry - and more often than not, I buy it.

It also helps that tracks like 'Sunshine' are anchored in a great hook by Jill Scott, and for the most part Pusha T really struck gold with his guest stars. The most notable is a sample from Biggie himself on 'Untouchable', a move most rappers would never dare to try but it works in context, given how Pusha T is trying to transcend YouTube rappers to a higher echelon of success, to the point where takes the easy but well-deserved shot at Donald Trump. From there, while he does handle most hooks himself, the other guests he calls in do a damn good job, the biggest surprise being The-Dream on 'M.F.T.R', who highlights so many ignorant rappers only find religion when the gun is coming for them. And then there's Kehlani's hook on 'Retribution', because for as much as Pusha T has stability, he's all the more aware that if his money was gone how many of the girls would stick around - and Kehlani then confirms his suspicions are completely correct, which at least feels honest. But at the same time, I was a little startled that Pusha T got A$AP Rocky and Kanye West on one song, and pretty much leaves them on the hook and nothing else. Sure, it probably turned out for the best, Pusha T's a better rapper than both of them, but it did strike me as a little wasteful.

But really, that's a minor nitpick, so why isn't this album a great one? Well, if I were to point to anything, it'd be some of the instrumentation - not that it's bad, but it can feel a little inconsistent. Now for the most part it's what you'd expect - thick, dark basslines, sparse, rattling percussion, and melodies that either come from echoing pianos or oily, ebbing waves of synth. And Pusha T also is smart enough to switch up beats for later verses to intensify the tension or the darken the track, the best examples coming on 'M.F.T.R'. and 'M.P.A.' and even off the gleaming borderline chiptune progression on 'Retribution'. And there's a few subtle sampling choices I think work really well - the hint of an eagle's cry in 'Crutches, Crosses, Caskets', the dirtier drums on 'F.I.F.A.', the ebbing symphonic backing vocals on 'Untouchable', they do a fantastic job bringing that murky atmosphere of menace that has elements of opulence in the more prominent melodies but still can get filthy. And if I were to have an issue with the production, it'd come in some of the latter cases, most notably on 'Crutches, Crosses, Caskets' and that odd plucky melody against the bubbling beat on 'Got 'Em Covered', the latter probably being my least favourite song here - they just feel a little too busy in the percussion than they really should. And then there's that vocal sample that opens up the intro - I liked the message it was saying, but it felt a tad goofy to me, just with its tone, at least until the harsher rapped vocals began. Finally - and I'm honestly a bit mixed on this - I'm not quite decided on how short this album can feel. On the one hand, this sort of bleakness works best in small pieces, but it also means songs like 'F.I.F.A.' could have been developed further with more time, and considering how much I liked the instrumental, that was a bit of a letdown.

But overall, this was pretty damn awesome. Pusha T was not a rapper I was ever expecting to like, but this album brought the sort of straightforward, well-written and honest insight that adds a lot of definition, and as a prelude, it sets the expectations sky-high. For me, I'm thinking a light 8/10 and for sure a recommendation, especially considering it's a pretty quick listen with a lot of replay value to decode all of his lines. So yeah, Pusha T, I'm onboard - let's see if King Push can live up to it.


  1. Thanks for the recommendation. If you don't mind me asking, when will we see those year end lists start rolling out?

    1. He said on twitter around the same time as last year.