Thursday, May 31, 2018

album review: 'daytona' by pusha-t

This is one of those reviews where I'm actually incredibly grateful I didn't jump the gun and review this early, if only because it feels like this week for Pusha-T might be one of the most tumultuous for hip-hop in 2018, and even now it feels like we're only joining the story in progress. And indeed, there's a part of me that just wants to focus on the beef with Drake, how Drake seemed to think he could put away Pusha-T's career with 'Duppy Freestyle' like he had Meek Mill, only to put Pusha-T's fiancee on wax and for Pusha-T to declare all bets are off with 'The Story Of Adidon', which might just join Jay-Z's 'Super Ugly' in the realm of diss tracks that seemed to step over the line. And yet for me... there's a part of me that feels Drake brought this on himself and has been pushing this line with too many people for too long, and not only did Pusha-T seem fully aware of the gravity of his references, the framing of all of it was highlighting the twisted cycle of abandonment that Drake was perpetuating from his father, be it his closest producer or his previously unrevealed son. For someone of principles - even the warped code of bleak, nihilistic pragmatism that Pusha-T adheres to - this is a much higher crime.

And yet it already seems like some are forgetting how the release of DAYTONA had been mired in some controversy of its own, with Kanye West operating as sole producer yanking the album art to replace it with a photograph of Whitney Houston's bathroom for a sum of $85,000, and that's before you got the lingering questions whether just seven songs from Pusha-T would be enough. Granted, I did just cover Minor Threat's Out Of Step less than a week ago, and that was about as long with nine tracks, but seven songs meant Pusha-T had no room for error or dead weight, and while the critical acclaim was really damn encouraging, I was cautious, especially as it seems like this might be the abortive substitution for the long-delayed KING PUSH - but hey, that didn't mean it wouldn't be good, right? know, I'm more conflicted on this project than I thought I would be - and because of its length, it's easy to listen to it four to six times on repeat without even noticing, partially for how seamlessly this album flows together but also because it has a feeling of ruthless efficiency both in its flexing and its barbed warnings. And as such, I can easily see a project like this branded as lacking dimension... until you start digging between the lines, and realize that at least some of Pusha-T's intentions are to narrow focus, both for himself and his audience.

And that's something that deserves attention right out of the gate, because Pusha-T knows exactly how skilled of an MC he is and how his clout flaunts the quick flashiness of most modern MCs - he could take as long as he needs to drop a record and he'd have hype behind it, especially considering he's jettisoned any attempt at commercial appeal that held back My Name Is My Name. And thus it's somewhat paradoxical that while Pusha-T has all the time in the world, his structure of writing is much more thorny and knotted than ever before - he's always been a great rapper with a penchant for detail and storytelling, but you can tell he's compressing - or to quote him on 'Come Back Baby', where he points at all the diamonds on his watch, 'all this shit came from pressure', not just referring to the high stakes of the drug trade but also his own focus on the tightest rhymes possible within the limited time he's been given. Indeed, time and watches are a running motif throughout the record beyond just the flexing, where on 'Hard Piano' he references how so many new rappers have ruined Patek watches, but not just the brand but the efficiency, given their own short careers and how Pusha-T must focus more on the art as well - it makes sense that a line earlier he references Andy Warhol, an artist with pieces like 'Empire' also played fast and loose with time. 

But really, if you're coming to a Pusha-T record you're coming for top-quality bragging, caustic bars, and the sort of haunted cocaine rap that's always given his material a bite so much modern trap material just doesn't have - and that's central to the framing. Don't get him twisted, Pusha-T has amassed a considerable fortune, but he's playing a higher class of criminal and he's more than aware of the lingering consequences on his psyche. To briefly reference 'The Story Of Adidon', it's why he's aware and comfortable with going into hell with Drake in the foulness of his bars, and it's why the danger of his life has always colored his bragging on DAYTONA. The second verse of 'If You Know You Know' is a prime example - he hasn't succumbed to corporate culture less out of choice and more because he can't, the street scars run too deep, and while many would flex and celebrate their wealth or that of others, he would prefer to accumulate it - he wasn't there when Meech brought the tigers in, but earning the stripes and criminal time to become that tiger himself. And as such there's nothing garish about his flexing on 'The Games We Play', knowing that he can be richer than everyone with no jewelry - because he knows the human consequences of what he's done to get there, referencing being paralyzed at the sight of drug mummies - cocaine smuggled with corpses. This isn't conscious and isn't intended to be, and with that ragged framing it colors Rick Ross' verse on 'Hard Piano' as he now seeks an artistic respect he's never attained beyond the wealth, or the genuine grief that colours Pusha's delivery on 'Santeria' as he seeks bloody, righteous vengeance in the face of his friend De'Von Pickett's murder. He might coax the imagery through Latin mafioso production - more on this in a bit - but this is not garish melodrama so much as a brutal and bleak reality, and it's a credit to Pusha-T's performance that he can wring those deeper emotions out of his nasal snarl. And thus of course it makes sense he has seething contempt for Drake on 'Infrared', baiting a trap in the ghostwriting charges and the corrupted mess of Young Money's broken family, which adds another layer of steel to his indictments on 'The Story Of Adidon'. 

Of course, the other side to that family conversation is the elephant in the room - and given his current political allegiance it seems like the metaphor works on multiple levels now - named Kanye West. And let me give Kanye the credit where it's due: the production on this record is absolutely excellent. The echoing vocal samples of 'If You Know You Know' might not have immediately gripped me, but against the filthy trumpet and warbling guitar of 'The Games We Play' and especially that deeper swell of melody against the distant keys, tapping groove, and incredibly raw hook from The World Famous Tony Williams really won me over, and when it's followed by George Jackson's sharply diced but soulful sample hook for 'Come Back Baby' and the gothic chorus from 070 Shake on 'Santeria', it can't help but make the otherwise minimalist trap grime pretty damn harrowing. But then Kanye has to hop on a second verse of 'What Would Meek Do?'... and I do sympathize with Pusha here, he tried to get Meek Mill and instead got Kanye referencing his 'Make America Great Again' hat as his cheap provocateur pass. And the frustrating thing is that from a technical standpoint Kanye's verse actually winds up pretty decent, but it's clear he's reveling his cheap provocation when in reality any of that symbolism he uses winds up being co-opted by the wrong audience, even despite Pusha's charitably nihilistic framing in taking the devil's path. Hell, despite Kanye thinking he's too complex for 'ComplexCon', he then references Million Dollar Baby comparing to himself, perhaps forgetting that the titular character broke her neck in a bout and wound up euthanized by her mentor, the sort of unsettling subtext and framing of which I'm not sure Kanye considered in his boasts... but I get the disturbing sense Pusha may have.

But regardless of that, it's a small blemish on a great project, netting a very strong 8/10 from me and definitely a recommendation. I'll freely admit that DAYTONA is not for everyone - more listens reveal increasing ugliness beneath the sort of haunted framing and raw delivery that gets under your skin in an unsettling way... but if I'm going to listen to this brand of hip-hop, Pusha-T delivers some of the best, and if Drake thinks he can cool off this 'surgical summer'... something gives me the feeling it's only just getting started.

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