Pusha T – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude

DBDby Tom Loughney ’16

Pusha T — former half of the now-defunct rap duo, Clipse — started his solo career strong with 2013’s critically acclaimed My Name is My Name, and recently released a prelude album to his upcoming King Push, called King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude. Long title aside, I’m a pretty big fan of what this record did, and what it’s leading to. The intro asks Push, “Who you wanna be? Drug dealer? Demon? Rap nigga? You tryna save the culture?” and, really, that’s what this album is about: Pusha T, his dealing, his power, his rap career, and his culture, all presented through Push’s amped up, eloquent style.

While Pusha T is definitely trying to stir up some hype, he’s not being overly bombastic about it. Production is pretty minimal — a little bit haunted, a little bit menacing. This isn’t a dense album, sonically or structurally, but really, that’s not the point. Pusha T wants you to listen to him, much more so than what’s going on around him. Push spends most of this album talking his persona up, talking his career up, talking his technical abilities up. Most tracks on this album — with a few exceptions — fall deep into hype track territory. To be clear, I don’t think this is a bad thing. This would wear out its welcome were Push a lesser rapper, but he’s got more than enough chops to make a thematically singular album stand out.

For my money, Pusha T is one of the best lyricists in the game. This man can weave a devastating bar together like no one else. He’s downright funny on some of these tracks, but he always pulls back — he doesn’t let comedy trivialize his conviction. On the track “M.F.T.R.,” Pusha T playfully refers to the money he got from dealing drugs. “No retirement plans, no Derek Jeters / We all know I did it; Rodriguez,” [1] but then points out that his wealth gives him a better perspective on rap income: “The illusion of money we don’t believe in / You ask me, Tyga looking like a genius.”[2] He never sits too long in one level of intensity, which really helps break up the pace of songs that are all — ostensibly — about very similar topics.

Pusha T still raps plenty about his dealing days but is a little less introspective about his past this time around. This is equal parts good and bad. Some of Push’s best lyrics, in my opinion, come from his self-criticism — e.g. Clipse’s “Mama I’m so Sorry.” That being said, I think that he made the right choice in shelving that approach to his life for this album. It doesn’t quite fit the confidence he displays on tracks like “Got em Covered,” where he highlights how powerful he feels having come from selling crack to being a well-regarded name in hip-hop. This track is also a pretty good example of how self-deprecation wouldn’t fit well with Darkest Before Dawn’s production. The beat is punchy, relentless — it’s got an empowering feel. Bring that in concert with the melodic riff — a descending progression on some sort of plucked stringed instrument — and you have a song that exudes strength and superiority. Not the type of tone that lends itself well to self-reflection. While Push is definitely less interested in examining his flaws, that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t included any thoughtful songs on the album.

“I don’t got no march in me, I can’t turn the other cheek / While they testing your patience, they’re just testing my reach.” The track “Sunshine” is a lot more X than King, and its good way to finish up an album that hasn’t spent a lot of time dealing with broad, societal issues. It’s clear that Pusha T is cognizant of these problems, but it doesn’t seem like they’ll end up being a focus on King Push. This is the only track on Darkest Before Dawn that’s definitively interested in racial politics, but Push does a good job of saying what he wants to say — and saying it well. This is also one of the prettiest songs on the album, with some fantastically sung female backing vocals, sustained textural bass, and one of the best Pusha T flows I’ve heard in a while.

The track “Untouchable” hits upon pretty notes as well. Timbaland produced this calm track, characterized by the soft, high-pitched lead that’s my favorite instrumentation on the album. It’s a little mournful but doesn’t take away from Push’s often-aggressive flow. Not all the pretty tracks are good, unfortunately, which brings us to the one standout blemish on this album, “M.P.A.”

Money. Pussy. Alcohol. Yikes. But it isn’t all bad. The production isn’t quite as strong as the other songs on Darkest Before Dawn, which is surprising — or, depending on your point of view, unsurprising — since Kanye was one of the main producers. It sounds like a lost College Dropout track, which gives it a bit of a discordant feel when heard amongst the rest of Darkest Before Dawn. That being said, it still hits a mark just above “competent,” so it doesn’t detract much from the record. It’s not Kanye’s production, but rather his feature, that’s the real problem with this track. Ye’s feature game hasn’t exactly been strong lately, and “M.P.A.” is no exception. His presence is especially bad for this track, since he’s taking the reins on the hook. “Money, pussy, alcohol / You niggas pussy after all / Money pussy alcohol / You niggas pussy not at all.” Not only is this a pretty weak hook, Kanye’s delivery is bored and disinterested. He sounds like a man who’s tired of rap, which is a sad thing to hear in Kanye’s voice. It also really takes away from the song, which is already running over thoroughly tread thematic ground. Money is bad. Money will change you. Don’t trust the lure of wealth. I love Pusha T. I love Pusha T. But even I have to draw the line somewhere. Normally, he’s very good at restating common ideas in an eloquent way, but this whole song is just so by-the-books that I feel the record would have benefited from removing it entirely.

There’s not much left to say about this album. Don’t let Kanye’s feature scare you off – most of the other features on this album are fantastic. You’ve got The Dream, Ab-Liva. Beanie Sigel, in particular, has a haunting delivery on “Keep Dealing” that gives me chills. Spooky. Even though I didn’t touch on a few other tracks — “Crutches, Crosses, Caskets,” “Retribution,” “F.I.F.A.” — they’re all unique, enjoyable examples of what good production and Push’s flows can do when you bring them together. I’ve been burning out on rap recently, but Darkest Before Dawn still held my interest and still gets regular listens, even a whole month later.

Rating: 8.75/10

[1] Duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuude got ‘em.

[2] Referencing Tyga’s departure from the Cash Money label due to problems with Cash Money failing to pay their artists fairly.

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