Pusha T

King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude

He’s finally done it. After the promising mixtapes, unlikely guest spots (Pixie Lott anyone?) and fitfully great solo debut proper, Pusha T has delivered his long-promised "hip hop album of the year". 10 tracks, 33 minutes and a full deck of superproducers doing some of their wildest work to date, dropped, in time-honoured rap fashion, the week before Christmas.

For a while it didn’t look like it could happen. Clipse were a classic hip hop double act backed by The Neptunes on the rise; together they put Virginia Beach (whose baseball team the production duo borrowed their name from) on the map. Years of prep and the unified efforts of these two teams made 2002’s Lord Willin’ one of those too-rare debuts on which the clarity and boldness of the MCs and production grabbed you on the first bars and didn’t let go till it was over.

Calling their style ‘coke rap’ always sold it short; rappers covering the same ground are ten a penny. The Clipse masterstroke was to detail the drug life neutrally and economically, without braggadocio or assumed shock value, guided only by the flow of each verse. Pusha T cut through as a vaudeville villain using the sickest details as mordant punchlines ("Kids call me Mr Sniffles") and The Neptunes’ megaton minimalism and hooks him gave the space and structure to make that impact. If you missed them, Clipse’s ‘Grindin’ and Baby/Birdman’s ‘What Happened To That Boy’ (really a Clipse/Neptunes track occasionally interrupted by the Cash Money man) are enough to tell you why so many have kept their eyes on Pusha T ever since.

Inevitably, the business got in the way. Record label limbo and The Neptunes producing every other record released by humans in the 00s broke down Clipse’s set-up and bought diminishing returns (though still some gems) through two more albums. The We Got It 4 Cheap mixtapes from Clipse’s crew Re-Up Gang, like Pusha’s own tracks and guest spots, showed his style to be surprisingly durable. But his work with so many outside collaborators raised a golden rule: if the track’s too busy, Pusha T gets swallowed up. He was great on 2013’s My Name Is My Name but much of it drifts by in a mid-paced, minor-key dirge, clogged with autotune and dead-eyed vocal hooks. It did show what he can do against the right track, though, not least in his pitch-perfect double-act with Kendrick Lamar on ‘Nosetalgia’, whose tight restraint courtesy of Nottz and Kanye West did justice to their two-sided story of drug dealing and growing up in an environment blighted by it.

Happily, that approach points the way to Darkest Before Dawn. Timbaland, Kanye and Diddy are among the big names on the boards here, battling it out with lesser known producers, all gleefully playing to Pusha’s style. It’s great to hear Timbaland making ice-cold, staggered sci-fi beats again, as the anti-gravitational pull of ‘Untouchable”s abstraction holds Pusha’s run-down of his career plans in deep space. Any MC would want to freestyle over this, which goes for all the star beats here. Timbaland pushes the digital snakes and ladders game further on ‘Retribution’ with vertiginous EDM bass rising and falling behind a tense arpeggio and Kehlani’s melancholy vocal hook. It’s just enough and too much, exactly what you want from Pusha T’s product. Tim’s staggered and scratched, videogame-flavoured take on old school hip hop showcases Re-Up’s Ab-Liva and Pusha doing what they do to full effect, and that’s all you need.

Against tough odds, Q Tip takes the producer crown. ‘F.I.F.A.’ is the album’s triumphal anthem, just cocaine-confident big beats and a fait accompli keyboard lick chopped around as Pusha drops indelible lines ("You don’t wanna know him if you owe him"). On a different tack, you might not have high hopes for M.T.F.R., with its hook of The-Dream singing "Niggas ain’t been to church in a minute, but it’s funny how the TEC make a nigga get religious" over beats from Toronto’s Boi-1da and Frank Dukes, but it’s magnificent: multilayered but with a tightly managed bounce that keeps the tension levels high. The darkest cut comes courtesy of relative unknown Nashiem Myrick: on ‘Keep Dealing’ Beanie Sigel’s reanimated husk warns "I ain’t never seen a nigga swallow a bullet and later talk about it" over wisps of horror film eeriness, the dank atmosphere somewhere between dead-footed Mobb Deep and shiver-inducing Gravediggaz beats. Even Kanye and Diddy prove they can still bring it in the production seat in the styles that first made their names. If Pusha T can keep this up throughout King Push proper, the forthcoming main event, he’ll have the hip hop album of next year too.

<div class="fb-comments" data-href="http://thequietus.com/articles/19476-pusha-t-king-push-darkest-before-dawn-the-prelude-review” data-width="550">

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today