Pusha T came out of the gate fully evolved. He kicks off the intro to Clipse’s Lord Willin’, released in 2002, talking shit and pushing weight—“Playas we ain’t the same, I’m into ’caine and guns”—a statement of purpose from which he never wavered. He was 25. Over Clipse’s ensuing mixtapes and albums, he and brother Malice were unblinking in their aesthetic vision, their devotion to the bad guy inspiring increasingly florid metaphors, full of Illuminati opulence and a Christ-fire conviction for exposing hip-hop impostors. Malice retired, and Pusha went solo, drafted by Kanye to help bring My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to life. It’s hard to imagine another rapper conveying excess with such beauty, making debauchery and malevolence feel quite so empowering, as Pusha did on “Runaway”: “Invisibly set, the Rolex is faceless / I’m just young, rich, and tasteless.” On Daytona, he’s less young, more rich, and every bit as tasteless.
The general complaint lodged against Pusha over his handful of solo releases has been that his style hasn’t changed; he’s still talking coke and clearing his throat. But this diamond-tight seven-track record produced entirely by West argues that the real problem was one of production—or rather, of setting. We don’t roll our eyes at Clint Eastwood’s filmography of gruff-voiced hardasses or Elmore Leonard’s library of terse, funny potboilers, and on Daytona Pusha doubles down on his biography and his obsessions, a stylist digging in his heels. It’s all dope-boy come-up stories, subliminal shit-talk, and luxury at a level only possible to convey via fine-art name-dropping and whatever the fuck a “caviar facial” is. For the first time since going solo, it all feels of a piece. On “If You Know You Know” he rolls in on ticking hi-hats, watch glinting, envisioning a “fraternity of drug dealers” who’ve gone straight. “Rapped on classics, I been brilliant,” he says on “Come Back Baby,” adding, “Now we blend in, we chameleons,” drawing a line between the force-of-nature self-consciousness of Hell Hath No Fury and the smooth CEO figure he cuts in 2018, stumping for candidates and goofing off with Aaron Rodgers for Adidas. He paints himself casually into the pantheon, claiming, “I am your Ghost and your Rae,” and shouting out Makaveli on “What Would Meek Do?”
By the time the album’s over, he sounds like the last rapper on earth. He’s voracious, barely stopping to breathe from the moment the record begins. Most beats barely roll for a measure before he dives; most hooks barely exist. For all the talk of Kanye’s narcissism, he’s always been a remarkably giving producer, frequently handing his records over for star-making guest spots, and the sonic setting he places this performance from Pusha in is an absolute masterpiece of minimalism. The core is thudding bass pulses, spare snare cracks, and uneasy drones, a light-swallowing, cavernous space that he interrupts with avant-garde horn blasts and echoing, fractious soul samples. West can’t resist dropping a verse over the wheezing menace of “What Would Meek Do?,” winking at his own recent controversies, but Pusha’s political progressivism remains foregrounded, weaving Weinstein and Trump into his vision as the sort of real-world villains he can’t abide. (This isn’t exactly new—Clipse’s “We Got It For Cheap” contains a Maya Angelou shout-out—but it’s nice to hear him be explicit.) But he saves his greatest vitriol for some unnamed other rapper that it doesn’t take a lot of guesswork to figure out is Drake, eventually turning the heat up to skin-melting temperatures on “Infrared.” He goes in, hook-free, for two minutes here, an almost gothic dismissal of one of the most popular rappers alive. When it’s over, Kanye drops a shuddering, spectral beat, and, for the first time in 20 minutes, Pusha stops rapping. He’s earned a breath.