There is one question that constantly perforates hip-hop discussion, and that is, who is the greatest of all time? The GOAT. It’s a question that pits listeners against one another due to its inherent subjectivity, but it also tends to generate some of the best discussion in hip-hop. There are so many factors that can go into the perceived GOAT status: lyrics, beats, subject matter, cultural value, popularity, or even the artist’s life outside of the music. Above all, however, we should consider consistency and quality. The best artists out there are the ones putting out solid track after solid track, even when they’re the featured artist. Of course this also takes a degree of lyrical prowess and a trademark sound – does there always have to be an intelligent and unique personality intertwined with the music, for that person to reach GOAT-dom?
Kendrick Lamar might be the first modern-day GOAT that comes to mind easily, based on the above breakdown, but today we’re making a case for Pusha T. Pusha T has been hitting similar requirement for years now, without as much fanfare surrounding him. Whereas Kendrick Lamar often surprises fans with each new feature and album, delivering an unexpected flow or vocal cadence, Pusha T is quite the opposite: we know almost precisely what to expect from him each time we hear the “Yuugh” that often jumpstarts his verses. Our expectations are consistent then, as is his sound – we don’t look to a Pusha T verse for a band-wagon rap trend or unwanted innovation – his is a sound that is more mature, and stable, much like his status in the game. It’s that street-made voice, those loud drum-backed beats and that king of the trap lords braggadocio that makes him endlessly entertaining. This combination might not seem that potent or special at first glance, but there’s a reason he calls himself King Push: he’s simply the best at it.
Take a look at where his style began way back in his days as one half of Clipse – 1992 to be precise. Pusha T and his brother No Malice (formerly known as Malice) began working with The Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams after meeting him early in their career. Pharrell helped the duo secure a record deal, but it would be 10 years before their debut album Lord Willin’ was released, in 2002. The lead single “Grindin’” was an instant hit: the song was just so easy to bang out on lunch tables while grooving to Pusha’s first verse. He was already referring to himself as a “legend in two games.” This verse is essentially the beginning of Pusha’s transition from pusher on the streets to pusher of the heat. With assistance from The Neptunes, Clipse delivered a mix of high-calibre lyrics and off-kilter beats to the gangster rap scene, unlike the type of content and sound that the sub genre had previously seen. Compared to other drug-affiliated artists at the time, such as strictly loud-and-hard rappers like Young Jeezy, Pusha was taking cocaine-talk in an all new direction stylistically– it was sleek and “high fashion.” Pusha and No Malice would continue to evolve this uniquely commanding style in the following years, and Pusha in particular developed a nasty ability to fuse rhyming rhetoric with immorality.
By the time their second album Hell Hath No Fury released in 2006, Clipse’s impact on hip-hop was already extensive. Snoop Dogg’s Neptunes-produced “Drop It Like It’s Hot” was arguably a direct result of the continued success of “Grindin’,” and collaborations with the likes of Justin Timberlake had solidified their crossover appeal. Pusha’s rhyming talents had even attracted the attention of the fast food chain McDonald’s, and he worked with Timberlake to record the company’s jingle that’s known worldwide. Conversely, amid label issues that repeatedly prevented the release of their second album and a desire for a less pop-oriented record, HHNF turned out to be Clipse’s darkest album.
But at the same time, this was the perfect backdrop for Pusha to make his everlasting lyrical mark on hip-hop. And he did just that with tracks like “Wamp Wamp (What It Do).” This was his evolution into a much more grimey Pusha – one that rapped about being the cocaine Betty Crocker over strange, broken drum beats in an effort to emulate both the tarnished lifestyle of a drug dealer and the street credibility attached to it. His bars were meant to kill his competition: “Coke by the ton, rap niggas I’m the one / With basic rhyme pattern, how the fuck you tryin to chatta” and “Upon my arrival, the dope dealers cheer him / Just like a revival, the verse tends to steer ‘em” were especially brutal lines, dictating his verbal superiority and the influence his words have had in the last few years. HHNF would go on to receive universal critical acclaim and top countless “best rap album” lists for both 2006 and the current decade.
When Pusha went solo and signed to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music in 2010, no one could have imagined the blessing it would be for both his fans and his own career. Fans didn’t have to wait long, either– they got exactly what they wanted when he dropped both Fear of God and Fear of God II: Let Us Pray in 2011. The mixtape and debut EP proved that even on his own, Pusha was a hip-hop force to be reckoned with. He fully embraced his boastful nature on tracks like “Trouble On My Mind,” asserting that “‘Ye done hit the jackpot” before comparing himself to Pinnochio’s Gepetto, since he’s pulling so many strings to reach that rap legend status. However, the biggest takeaway for his fans was that Pusha T was defining, or perhaps more accurately, re-defining, himself as one of the most consistent rappers in the game.
If he hadn’t reached the GOAT level after reinventing his career as a solo rapper, his debut solo album My Name Is My Name can be considered the final nail in the coffin. This was and still is the definitive trap lord album– not the trap music we hear coming from Atlanta currently, which feels almost like bubblegum-trap when pitted against Pusha– but the harsh reality of being the best in the cocaine-selling business. It’s a Scarface-esque ballad of maintaining the hip-hop “crown” no matter what, a narrative no other rapper has managed to match simply because they don’t have the drug-laced history that Pusha does at this point in his career. Every song on this album has those trademark slow-burning, head-snapping beats that seem tailor made for drug dealer royalty. Every lyric distinctly capitalizes on Pusha’s voice and flow. “Numbers On The Boards” and “Nosetalgia” are probably the best examples of this, featuring the most “Yuugh!” inducing rhythms and rhymes. “NOTB” places listeners right in the middle of Pusha’s multi-million dollar home where he’s still got the Pyrex set up in the kitchen, and ends the tour by exclaiming “I might sell a brick on my birthday / 36 years of doing dirt like it’s Earth Day.” “Nosetalgia” takes listeners to the hot summer streets of Pusha’s past, where he’s the “Black Ferris Bueller” and justifies both skipping school and his line of work with verses like “Nigga this is timeless, simply cause it’s honest / Pure as the fumes that be fucking with my sinus.” The project as a whole is the essence of Pusha T – powerful, poignant, extremely unique and overall consistent with the style that King Push made his trademark.
That’s why Pusha is one of the greatest of all time. Even on his features– whether he’s working with Logic or Flume or anywhere in between– he snaps every time. He’ll tell you a story about the value of a self-made man if you listen closely. No one tells that story better than King Push himself – mostly because no one else compares to his wordsmithing abilities and the manner in which he presents them. Fans can continue to expect Pusha to deliver his now classic style for years to come– specifically, we’re looking towards his third studio album, King Push, bringing things full circle.