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Pusha T
Daytona Anthony Henderson , June 21st, 2018 17:02

The best (probably) of Kanye's Wyoming projects, a short sharp album with mystery at its heart

Daytona is produced entirely by Kanye West (we can safely call this a collaboration) and came as the first of the five ‘Wyoming’ projects he’s working on this year (the others are: Ye; Kids See Ghosts, his project with Kid Cudi; Nas’s Nasir; and Teyana Taylor’s KTSE, out tomorrow). Daytona turns out to be sort of a monument, a stone-faced statement of stylistic integrity which signals high points in the musical careers of each artist. And these two fit together like puzzle pieces that thankfully met amid the scattered, imposing landscape of rap politics and culture, full of beef, shaky allegiances, and polarising trendsetters. In my humble opinion, it’s one of the year’s most worthy releases. It feels like a natural and compelling stylistic progression for Pusha himself (strongly aided by Ye), showcases some particularly tight and purposeful verses, and offers a mystery-soaked narrative which positions it as a serious moment in the world of rap mythology.

Pusha’s solo career has seen him rapping over increasingly dark and strange beats, complementing his focus on a past of drug dealing and an ambiguous present. If you’ll take his word for it, he’s as much a kingpin as he is a rapper, and his connection to that lifestyle sets him apart from the game’s other players, which from his point of view is overpopulated with fakers (“I’m too rare / Among all of this pink hair”). He makes this point periodically throughout Daytona, although his focus from track to track is either more fun or more compelling than a simple “I’m different.”

‘If You Know You Know’, the opener, is sonically dense. It’s an energised, low-key banger which works with an appealingly teasing premise: no matter what, certain (read: most) of the population will never be able to totally unpack his coded language. As Pusha’s said, he’s speaking directly to his people, to those in a similar situation to his young self. While anyone can explore this track’s lyrical playground (“I only ever looked up to Sosa / You all get a bird, this [guy] Oprah”), there will, according to Pusha, always be a leftover layer to peel back, reserved for his people. “If you know, you know.”

Pusha’s style includes heady rap chunks (the lyrics are consequential, line-to-line, with sudden narrative shifts and tons of wordplay), with some of the easiest lyrics being slow-burners at the least. But at about 21 minutes, this album keeps from being a daunting listen. And Kanye’s production is consistently top-notch and purposeful, matching Pusha’s focused-yet-colour-stuffed verses and highlighting his ambiguous persona with dark or strange tones paired with fluffless beats, all with a focus on samples.

‘Come Back Baby’ is one of the most narratively compelling tracks, and that has a lot to do with Kanye’s usage of George Jackson’s ‘I Can’t Do Without You’. Based on stark shifts between a snippet of that track in untampered form and the creeping, rumbling sections that contain Pusha’s verses, it’s a great example of the illustrative powers a beatmaker can wield. Amid bragging about his own success and the hardness of his upbringing, the verses build up to an admission that however great it might have made him, Push can’t outrun his past: “Can’t escape the scale if I tried / Interstate trafficking’s alive.” Another layer is added to the narrative Pusha’s been working with since Clipse, and Kanye does this revelation justice. The purity of the sample and its rolling, blissful bass begins to feel like a respite for Pusha from the image he has to maintain. But it doesn’t last long enough, and a repeat of the vocal on the last loop recognises that the simple pleasure is fleeting.

The most affecting story is told in the mini-epic ‘Santeria’, in which Push goes from mourning a murdered friend (his old road manager, De’Von Pickett) to committing to a revenge plot, with grim detail. He talks to De’Von in the third verse, his voice treated with subtle reverb over mournful bass: “Checkin’ my ego / I’m livin’ with lost faith.” The beat parallels with a gunshot percussion which is present throughout and then, in the middle of this verse, ushers in a ghostly explosion. It appears almost out of nowhere, but doesn’t interrupt Push, dead-set on what he plans to do. The bragging - “no jail bars can save / Leave you like Malcolm where X marks your grave” - turns decidedly disturbing, and awfully real.

The closer, ‘Infrared’, is a more grounded, with clear references to the rap industry. At first it seems like he leaves us with a Drake diss (although Drake seems more of a symbol for what Pusha sees as the rap world’s flaws): “Remember Will Smith won the first Grammy? / And they ain’t even recognise Hov until Annie / So I don’t tap-dance for the crackers and sing Mammy.” The beat also features a subtle element reminiscent of what’s perhaps Pusha’s most popular track, ‘Grindin’, with Clipse (the track’s been referenced sonically throughout Pusha’s solo career), although it’s buried by the 24-Carat Black sample’s dark spaciousness - Pusha’s history is being engaged with, and pushed in compelling new directions.

The album isn’t totally without missteps. ‘What Would Meek Do?’ has a great beat and some very Britney keyboard attitude, and Kanye proves that he knows how to ride his own stuff, but the verse is too caught up in specific instances of public drama (and “Am I too complex for ComplexCon?” just isn’t clever). ‘Hard Piano’ does service to the Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band sample, with the stapling-on of some very pretty and dramatic synths, but the snippet itself isn’t too exciting and Rick Ross’s feature doesn’t completely earn its place. Pusha’s old-head positioning could turn some listeners off (he aligns himself with Eazy-E, Jay-Z, Trugoy of De La Soul, Tupac, Biggie), but he never dwells on it.

But any flaws feel minor, and they only lightly chip at this monolithic piece of work, where commonplace rap stories breathe in ways they haven’t before. The mystery is this record’s greatest strength, and it lives in every crevice, spicing up what could otherwise just be a collection of especially hard bars. Following the 24-Carat Black sample to its end, the proclamation of “I’m gone! I’m gone! Ya hear me? I’m gone!” are the last words on Daytona. In the source track, it feels melancholy and ambiguous. But as a closing moment for this album, it’s an expression of raw power.

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