As its name would suggest, King Push—Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude is a bleak, caustic, and at times unsettling listening experience. It is a 10-track twisted odyssey crafted by one of the most lyrically gifted rappers of the 21st century as he unloads on a range of specific enemies and larger issues both real and perceived. Never before, either in his solo work or as a member of Clipse, has Pusha T sounded more pissed off.
At a time when the most talked-about issues in rap music are centered around process and authorship—a conversation that was sparked earlier this year by the Meek Mill/Drake beef that began with accusations of ghostwriting—Pusha instead takes umbrage with matters of content and persona. On “Crutches, Crosses, Caskets,” he lays out his larger problem with the current state of rap quite clearly, saying, “Rappers is victimized at an all-time high / But not I.” Apparently, to the newly named president of G.O.O.D. Music, too many prominent MCs have spent the last two or three years expending far too much time and energy brandishing their feelings in the public sphere, and he’s plainly sick of it.
If Pusha T is, as he seems to contend, the final torchbearer of truly authentic, larger-than-life, world-weary, and lyrically virtuosic rap music, then it’s not difficult to figure out who embodies his ideal vision of excellence and purity in the field. The ghost of The Notorious B.I.G. looms large over Darkest Before Dawn in ways that are both obvious and fleeting. Biggie’s specific brand of street-savvy wisdom, combined with tales from a drug-slinging past and a penchant for braggadocio one-upmanship, is all but Pusha’s bread and butter on this record. It almost certainly must have been a huge coup for him to score an appearance from the man himself on Darkest Before Dawn’s lead single, “Untouchable,” but the allusions don’t stop there. He also quotes a line by Biggie from his 1996 song “You’ll See” on “M.F.T.R.” and calls out the man’s birth name, Christopher Wallace, in the opening bars of “Intro.”
To help put together the tapestry of depraved and twisted soundscapes that Pusha uses as a launching pad to excoriate and eviscerate the world at large, the rapper called in a murderer’s row of production talent, including fellow Virginian Timbaland, Sean “Puffy” Combs, and J. Cole, while Pusha’s G.O.O.D. Music boss, Kanye West, lends his talents to three tracks, including the near-piano-ballad “M.P.A.” (“Money, Pussy, Alcohol”), on which he also provides a surprisingly delicate vocal hook. Perhaps in less confident hands, the outsize musical talent gathered here would overshadow or outright bury the lyrical contributions of the main MC, but Pusha’s voice remains the focal point throughout. There’s plenty of style in these songs, but it’s totally overrun by the substance of Pusha’s own precise, illuminating thoughts and opinions.
In an interview before the release of this record, Pusha stated that he wanted to get the “darkest part of their souls” from his many musical collaborators, a goal that was achieved by all parties invested in this project. The mood is set right from the beginning on “Intro,” which opens with an array of synth sounds reminiscent of the score to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange before slamming into a rhythm that’s all boom and no bap. That foreboding tone is carried forward through the rest of the record, reaching its zenith on the cocaine-dusted track “Keep Dealing”—“The last cocaine superhero / I got my cape on to cover kilos”—and on the album’s closing shot at America’s deep-seated institutional racism, “Sunshine”: “In Fox eyes, we the dark side / So they tell you lies through the TV CNBC / CNN, Don Lemon no [Talib] Kweli when you meet me.”
If Darkest Before Dawn really is a prelude to the record King Push to come, you have to wonder where Pusha T will choose to take his music next. Making it deeper, angrier, darker, and more foreboding doesn’t seem possible.