First Impressions: Pusha T – Darkest Before Dawn

Pusha T brings heat to late December with the best hip hop album of the year.

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Pusha T is the perfect artist to release an incredible album in December.

December is traditionally a weird time of year for the music industry. Most major publications have already released their end-of-the-year lists, and super fans are busy catching up on the obscure albums that NPR is telling them they missed. The Adeles of the world have put out their big Q4 releases in time for Black Friday, and there’s a general sense of being worn out on new music discovery. The month is a blur of taking stock in what we have or should have been listening to, with less noteworthy stuff coming out in the few weeks before the holidays.

Except, of course, for the one or two incredible albums each that come out of nowhere and completely rip the “traditional” paradigm up.

Beyoncé, D’Angelo, and J. Cole are all artists that have surprise-released some of their best work ever on an unsuspecting December public, using the month’s still waters as a way to make an even bigger splash. Though the year is all but wrapped from a PR standpoint, they’re making art projects so indisputably good that when they don’t end up on a yearly roundup, it renders those same roundups incomplete. Surprises aside, it’s actually the oldest way to get people to listen: make a body of work that’s essential.

I’d submit that Pusha T is the latest artist to make an essential December album. (I also hope to talk about Jeremih’s oversexed, long overdue Late Nights: The Album at some point.) But there’s a key difference: the artists mentioned above are making Statement Albums, testaments to their work that hope to be defining moments in their careers. Longwinded title aside, Push trimmed all possible fat, delivering 10 hard-hitting hip hop songs with hardly any choruses.

It’s not completely unexpected that this would happen. After what felt like close to a decade, the Clipse rapper released his vastly underrated solo debut My Name Is My Name under Kanye’s GOOD Music label. Executive produced by ‘Ye as an act of solidarity with the street hustler he’d given a second chance in the mainstream, MNIMN was polished to a fault. Pusha moved all the right pieces into place for what I frequently feel is a low-key classic album, as good as anything he’s done with Clipse. It also felt like an event. Features from Rick Ross, Future, and Kendrick Lamar; throwback production from Pharrell; even some autotune wailing from Kanye that recalled Pusha’s star turn on “Runaway”—everything came together to make the biggest possible splash.

Darkest Before Dawn (or King Push — Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude as its ridiculous full name goes) doesn’t aim for the same kind of sweeping statement as its predecessor. Most of this album works more in the vein of a Run The Jewels record: 34 minute of shit talk and politics crammed together in a compelling flurry of bars.

There’s a lot to unpack in these verses too. Pusha T interviews leading up to this release have stressed that he feels underserved by the “coke rap” genre that he’s been ghettoized into. It’s clear from the output that he’s stretching past these superficial distinctions. Verses traffic in team loyalty, black excellence and aspiration, the politics of the rap game, how the media affects professional relationships, and so much more. It’s especially nice to hear Push get more explicitly political on this album, picking up on the trend from last album standouts “Hold On” and “40 Acres”. Album closer “Sunshine” is one of the best political rap songs I’ve ever heard, intensely passionate and quotable: “Still a target but the badge is the new noose / Yeah, we all see it but the cellphones ain’t enough proof”. Lyrics aside, Push’s delivery is what drives the song—it feels more real, more urgent because Pusha T sounds so authentic when he speaks.

Despite what he’s said in interviews, Pusha Ton is still one of the truly great drug rappers. A common refrain in his career is that he’s able to do what he wants, not chasing mainstream approval because he’s still making money from the drug game. It’s so much fun to hear him smirking through elegant wordplay just so you’re fully aware of what he’s doing: “Play your role, it’s easy acting like Mitch / ‘Paid in Full’ was more than reading a script”; “The soft ceiling’s open / I Cross-Fit the coco”; “My barcode is Netflix ‘Narcos’ / Part on the side of my ‘fro like I’m Pablo.” Every cadence is designed for maximum impact, respecting his street legacy while not being restricted to the past.

It’s a great mix of old and new. The album is filled with deliberate throwbacks: numerous Biggie references, Jill Scott doing her best Billie Holiday impression, an absolute #fire Beanie Sigel verse that’s probably his highest profile song placement in a decade. But they’re all in service of beats from a murderer’s row of producers (Metro Boomin, Boi-1da, Diddy(!), J Cole, ‘Ye, Timbaland, Q-Tip, DJ Mano) that somehow sound more timeless than nearly anything from 2015. It’s a refreshing change of pace from how insular Drake, Kendrick, Vince Staples, Earl Sweatshirt, Future, and so many more rappers got with their beats this year.

I’ve written so much at this point and barely gotten to the songs, but you’re better off just listening to the damn thing a few dozen times. I’m so grateful that Pusha T is still making relevant and incredible music, even for a middle class white guy in Philadelphia. It’s a welcome reminder in a year packed with great music that you can still stand out from the pack by doing great work and not giving a fuck. King Push on the way. Eghck.

Favorite Tracks: “Sunshine”, “M.P.A.”, “Keep Dealing”

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