It's scary to think how good the actual "King Push" will be if this is just the prelude.
Sometimes, first reactions are wildly off the mark, and that was the case with me upon hearing the first few leaks from Pusha T's Darkest Before Dawn. Regardless of the production or other lyrics on "Untouchable" and "M.F.T.R.," I couldn't shake the fact that Pusha Ton was still rapping about cocaine. The less repentant half of The Clipse undoubtedly earned his kingpin status in tandem with his rap fame ("I ain't spent one rap dollar in three years" is a particularly illuminating snapshot of this from 2006's Hell Hath No Fury), but after his status has climbed due to an affiliation with Kanye West, a successful solo career, and other business ventures, it seemed a little unlikely that he was still "Cross-Fit[ting] the coca." More importantly, the duo's manager was slapped with a 32-year sentence for drug trafficking back in 2010. My reaction was similar to Lamb Of God frontman Randy Blythe's in his excellent review of Pusha's 2013 album My Name Is My Name ("if he’s not just making it all up, apparently Pusha T either a) still misses the old days, b) is about to recreate them any second now, or c) never left them"), or Danny Brown's on drug-rap parable "Side B (Dope Song)" ("I'm sick of all these n*ggas with their ten year old stories/You ain't doing that no more, n*gga lying to the shorty"). But I realize now that I was off the mark.
Pusha isn't out there claiming to be the "cocaine cowboy" he used to be. Instead, his former lifestyle is inextricably tied to his artistry-- he's like an NFL player who got a career-ending injury and couldn't see himself doing anything but coaching or commentating. While this resulted in some growing pains on his Wrath Of Caine mixtape and a few of MNIMN's weakest tracks, he's now reigned it in to a much more valuable asset on his latest release. Darkest Before Dawn gives us the worldview of a former dealer, with cocaine distribution being the window through which everything is viewed, whether it be ghostwriting politics in rap, relationships, Donald Trump's proposed immigration policy, or police violence. Push may have moved on to more taxable occupations, but he still approaches everything he does with the vigor of a dealer trying to scrape a living, watch his back, and control his territory.
His increased focus on current events, especially on breathtaking closer "Sunshine," is the bigger change, and one that should be welcome to anyone demanding more substantial lyrical content from popular rappers. He's deft in his weaving of wildly varied topics into vivid mosaics, with the first 16 of "Untouchable" alone referencing the increased availability of music in the internet age, the band U2, Trump, luxury watches, gourmet Asian cuisine, his reluctance to record guest verses, '90s R&B group Total, Birdman's money-grubbing greed, grill-clad Bond villain Jaws, "Scarface," Cross-Fit, Dri-Fit, and Lennox Lewis. Sheesh! And it's not even in an MF DOOM-esque blend of non-sequiturs; every line seems to feed into the next, with double entendres and dominant themes all working towards the greater aim of the song. He may be rapping slower, and with less use of poetic devices like assonance and alliteration, but the words no longer skirt across the surface of the music like beautiful wisps of language-- they take a few listens to have their true value appraised.
Beyond the lyrics, though, DBD also bests its predecessor in the musical department. MNIMN was a largely consistent collection of songs, but its fluctuation between glossy, high-sheen cuts helmed by guys like Swizz Beatz and Rico Beats ("Sweet Serenade" and "40 Acres," respectively) and the gritty, off-kilter fare that defined Hell Hath No Fury ("Numbers On The Boards," "Nosetalgia") was a little jarring at times. (Additionally, the Mase-impersonating "Let Me Love You" was straight up out of place.) Here, Push and a legendary stable of producers have found a way to wed the weird HHNF sound with the epic orchestral pomp that Kanye's been experimenting with since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Star-studded centerpiece "M.P.A." sounds like a spiritual successor to "Blame Game" until "Goregous"-style guitars cut through unexpectedly; Q-Tip brings stadium rock into the 22nd Century on "F.I.F.A."; Diddy brings the frostbitten coldness of his work on Biggie's Life After Death to weird, Last Train To Paris-style romps; Timbaland deftly blends his forward-thinking work with Missy Elliott and Aaliyah with the cinematic gradeur of Futuresex/Lovesounds' boldest cuts.
DBD takes a page out of Ye's collab-heavy book and features at least two producers on all but one song, and anywhere from four to eight writers per track. Clearly, this works to great effect, but it makes some of Pusha's jabs at Drake seem a little hypocritical-- for all of his realness, he still uses the same network of collaborators as most top-tier artists these days. But if Drizzy's triumph over Meek Mill hinted that ghostwriting was no longer a major issue in hip hop, DBD cements that by showing us that even one of this era's most celebrated ghostwriters (Push has been rumored to write for Kanye) gets better with a little help from his friends.
Clocking in at just over 30 minutes, DBD is too insubstantial to be considered a true masterpiece, even if it is remarkably close to flawless. Instead, it seems like it'll occupy a position similar to Vince Staples' Hell Can Wait EP from last year: a near-perfect but too-brief statement of intent that precedes a sweeping opus that's just as focused but more epic in scope. Pusha needed some grounding after the stunning-but-unfocused MNIMN, and this stopgap release does much more than that.