Pusha T’s on the line, though he’s a bit occupied, and the reason why is a mouthful.
He’s getting fitted for a grill. Our convo starts with the rapper saying “yo” and then “hi” before we exchange pleasantries. Then a guy named Gabby with an Uzbek accent approaches him and asks whether there’s a mirror in the vicinity. (Gabby, it turns out, is Gabby Pinhasov, best known for forging precious mouthpieces for the likes of A$AP Rocky, Pharrell, and Kim Kardashian.)
“I have to try them on before he leaves,” Pusha apologizes, before slipping the metal fronts over his teeth. Or at least that’s what I assumed he was doing, given the two minutes of disjointed dialogue that ensued on the other end of the line.
“Take a look. I want you to see it,” calls out a voice that I suspect to be Gabby’s.
“Oh yeah. Come on,” says Pusha.
“Yeah, right?” says Gabby.
“Way better. Way better,” Pusha responds, lilting his vowels a tad. “Do you want to take my mold back or do you have it?”
Then muffled banter, a bout of silence and, eventually, no more Gabby. Pusha’s focus is back to the interview, he swears. “Sorry,” he says. “I’ve been fucking with Gabby since ’99.”
If the man seems stretched thin, well, that’s just the price of doing business these days. It’s been nearly two weeks since It’s Almost Dry, his first no. 1 album, dropped and Pusha’s on the back end of a multistate promotional marathon. Before our call he’d just wrapped up another interview on the never-ending New York radio circuit. “I’m on some other shit right now,” says the King reared where ain’t shit to do but cook.
Schedule notwithstanding, Pusha exudes calculated security, a quality that’s equally attributable to his position in rap and in life. His mother and father both passed away in the last year. His first child was born in 2020. With the release of this album, he’s no longer contractually bound to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D Music for the first time in over a decade. And, despite the occasional subliminal, his beef with Drake seems to be mostly over—the Virginian having cleaved the Canadian’s reputation in two with a single shameless, masterly swing. At 44, Push isn’t exactly resting on his laurels (more on that in a moment), but he swears he’s past contending with anyone but himself.
“When I was making We Got It 4 Cheap, I thought, ‘I rap better than everybody in the world,’ and I was going to shoot everybody in the world,” the MC says, referencing the mixtape series he and his brother Malice concocted as part of the Clipse in the wandering years between their 2002 debut, Lord Willin’, and its icy follow-up, Hell Hath No Fury. “I thought that I was the greatest. I was mad. I couldn’t put out music. I was like, ‘Ah! This motherfucker don’t even rap better than me!’ Talking shit. ‘Ahhhhh!’ I used to be like that. Not now.”
If the new album’s a barometer, he’s stylistically bulletproof. Sound-wise, It’s Almost Dry is Pusha’s most advanced record by a mile, a synthesis of the celestial and the earthly, the tingle down your spine and the flutter in your chest. His Tidewater day-one Pharrell absolutely laced the record, contributing a backdrop that’s at once ethereal, weightless, and spectral; Kanye—Pusha’s mid-career hookup—balanced it out with beats equally organic and spare.
As bars go, the whole thing is smooth like baking soda. At various speeds, intonations, and occasions, Push stacks syllables with the utmost care. Whenever he’s bored, he knocks them over and starts fresh again. He’s not unaware of the charge that his music is lacking in diversity of law-abiding thought—it’s just that he disagrees with the premise of the critique. Where’s his 4:44, his Life Is Good, his midlife manifesto? “I don’t want to talk like that,” Pusha purrs, “I don’t want to do that.”
And then there’s the matter of the album title: For what it lacks in subtlety, it compensates for with clear-sightedness. The phrase “It’s almost dry” in this case serves less as observation than as an outright lure. More than 20 years in, he knows precisely what he’s selling, and let’s just say it’s not powder he’s managed to push and shove. It is pretty damn pure, though. (Doesn’t take a test kit to determine that dope is dope.) Functionally, the rapper’s never been better. What else is there to say? If you’re in the market for that kind of thing, Push is still the man who’s got what you need.
It’s been about 10 days since the record dropped. It’s Almost Dry is out into the world. Who’s your imagined listener when making records?
Oh, Puff. I only want Puff to hear my albums every time. I only care about what he says. I mean I want Hov to hear them lyrically. But I want Puff to critique it. I want him to sort of tear it apart. I will send Puff my album, I’ll send it to him, or I’ll go to his house and play it for him and let him give it a thumbs up or not. He is my muse for everything. I want his approval first.
That’s interesting. Going off that, I heard you were studying a ton of Life After Death and Vol. 2 while you were recording. What is it about those two albums that still attracts you? Outside of the content, just craft-wise.
Big has the absolute best rap melodies ever. There’s no one who raps melodically better than him. Number one. As far as Hov, I just kept listening to Vol. 2 simply because it’s not my favorite Hov album, but it is the Hov album that I was probably the biggest champion for. It was his breakout where the world knew he was the greatest. He sold all the records, he got the Grammy, he had the big single, it was everything. Being a fan from Reasonable Doubt and really tuning in to what he was saying—really tuning in when people didn’t understand—[Vol. 2] was a moment where I was like, “Man, my guy is really about to get it. He’s about to get all his glory.” And he did.
A while back you were talking about Watch the Throne and you said of Jay and Kanye, “I don’t know who the hell they were competing with. Maybe themselves. It wasn’t any rapper.” Do you feel like you’re at that stage now where it’s about challenging yourself, not other folks?
Yeah. For sure. There’s absolutely no other rapper that I’m competing with. Man, there’s nobody that I even consider in a rap space at all. Nobody. I really don’t even want to do records with motherfuckers. I’m picking my features because I admire what somebody does and what I feel they’re going to bring to this particular song. But other than that, I only want to hear myself. I’m not competing with a soul.
So you’re telling me that when you heard Jay’s verse on “Neck & Wrist,” you weren’t feeling like, “I got to up my shit a little bit”? No fear at all?
When I do features, bro, I give people the hook, my verse, and an open space. The whole point of them getting on the song is to up the ante. That’s how I’m looking at this shit. It ain’t about getting smoked or whatever. Because I mean ... first of all, it’s Hov. So I mean, it’s whatever. But it’s the same shit for anybody. Anybody ever heard me on a song whether with Ross, or with Kendrick, or whoever. ... It’s all about upping the ante on the song. It’s about me being so satisfied with my verse and still knowing that there’s more needed. I wrote another verse for “Neck & Wrist,” but it wasn’t hitting to me.
Wait, wait, wait. You got another verse?
[Pusha starts rapping]
Imagine if BMF was shot by Spike Lee / Brand-new millionaires look just like me / They say that I’m just a snowfall from Strike 3 / Still ask about my white girl like I’m Ice-T.
But I was like, “Man ...” I found the melody and I was happy, but I was like, “Nah, I got to call in for reinforcements.”
What’s the track on It’s Almost Dry that when you heard the beat for the first time you almost fainted?
“Let the Smokers Shine the Coupes.” For sure. It was the best futuristic interpolation of “Glaciers of Ice” that Pharrell could have ever tried to make. Musing “Glaciers of Ice.” It was the closest thing we could have done.
See, I would’ve thought you were going to say “Call My Bluff.” Because I know when I heard that track, when they sent me the link … I almost started floating, man. I was like, “What the fuck is this shit?”
Nah. “Call My Bluff” was hard. It was hard too, but that motherfucking “Let the Smokers Shine the Coupes” that’s the, “Bro, I’m going to go spend some fucking money. I’m about to go build a car right now and on my way to go build this car, I’m going to play that shit.”
Is it the drum pattern that did it for you?
Yep. It was the drum pattern, and it was the way that P made me rap to that. Coca leaf and potpourris / Chains over Le Coq Sportif / Don’t brag bricks to me / If they ain’t tell you to bring your skis. Jesus. I was done. I was like, “Listen. Hey, fellas, I’m going to bring this home.” Yeah. She is really, really it.
The thing I love most about that song is how in control you are on it. You’re just moving at your own pace.
Yeah. No rush, not at all.
Was there a time as you were making this album when either Ye or Pharrell heard the other person’s work and ended up just being astounded?
I think that that was really the premise of the whole process. I would fly from Miami to L.A., let Ye hear what me and Pharrell did. He’d be like, “Oh shit. Well that’s what y’all on?” Boom. He’d give some more. I’d take it straight back to Pharrell. “Hey, look what we did.” I mean, I was just ping-ponging the whole time. I can say that I know that Pharrell thought Ye’s records were hard and because of that, I got a record like “Open Air” from him. I know that. I know that he was like, “He’s not going to have all the fun of making these hard records.” I know his spirit was there for that particular one. I know “Brambleton” is probably what helped me get “Dreamin of the Past.”
Yeah. Because Ye had it. It was his. He didn’t want to give it to me. Pharrell gave me “Brambleton.” Ye hadn’t wrote to “Dreaming of the Past,” and I played him “Brambleton.” He’s like, “Oh shit.” And I’m like, “Man, you fucking around, man. You need to give me this record. You see the fuck we doing.” You know what I’m saying? He was just like, “All right. Take the song.” But it probably was because of that.
Did either of them have a common thread that they really wanted to ensure that the album had?
No, they both were selfishly doing what they feel is best for Pusha T. And that is a very different thing.
Kanye West wants mixtape raps. Pharrell Williams wants composition ... hook, bridge, cadence, B chorus. Boom. So they was very different. And I mean, it was really on some like, “OK, well you do that, then I’m going to do this.” “All right, fine. Fuck it.” Only record they collaborated on was fucking “Rock N Roll.” Ye just couldn’t find the drums for it. He started it and just wasn’t happy with the drums. The day we put it together he kept leaving and saying like, “Man, I don’t know. But the drums just don’t do right. They don’t do right.” And he finally was just like, “Hey, send that to Pharrell. Tell Pharrell to give me his drums.” Other producers were around and because they knew that Ye couldn’t find the drums initially, all the producers were doing drums to it. I found a couple of renditions that I liked and I would play them and one day Ye came in and he was like, “What is that?” And I said, “It’s a joint, it’s whatever drums, whoever.” He was like, “Listen, scrap all the drums. It’s Pharrell’s drums. Scrap everybody. I don’t want to hear any more renditions of it with anybody else’s drums. It’s only Pharrell’s drums.”
That’s wild. I wonder how rare that is for both of them to have somebody that they look at legitimately as a peer.
I think that they know that they’re very different. They know that they appreciate each other. I know that. I can tell that when I’m with P, Ye feels comfortable turning his back, versus when I bring him other things. I start off my process bringing Ye music or bringing him verses and bringing him shit that I’m writing to or maybe I get a beat from somebody, something I like. I usually get five or six in and I bring it to him. If I bring him five of Pharrell, he’d be like, “OK, cool. Y’all keep going on here. This is what I’m going to add.” If I bring him five of somebody else, he’d be like, “I can do that better. Give me all them vocals.” And then he does that. He doesn’t do that with P. With Pharrell, me and Pharrell got a bit of an issue just because I don’t think we see eye to eye anymore on a purist level. On a purist level of hip-hop, like we once were both very, very entrenched in the hottest Jadakiss freestyle. And we’re not there together anymore.
I’d imagine that disconnect can be both an obstacle and an opportunity.
Yeah. I think P looks at ... he knows me and Ye are really there. So he looks at that as motivation to prove himself to show that his formula can be hard, too. I know he does.
What does evolving as an artist mean to you?
It means that the art, the sound that I’m making always sounds progressive. It can have the same content, it can have the same subject matter, but it always must sound progressive. It never sounds throwback. That’s what it means to me. I only want to make one type of record. Y’all ain’t tell Johnny Cash to make nothing else. I want to make one record. One style. That’s it. I want to make one movie, one Scorsese. I want to make one type. But it needs to look and be fresh every time I do it.
It’s weird because we don’t get mad at Adele for making breakup albums. Like you just said, Johnny Cash is making 40 records of the same shit. White people can make albums about whatever the fuck they want. But when it comes to rap—and this subgenre of rap in particular—it’s never enough to stay put. You know what I mean? It’s treated like a defect.
It’s nasty. I hate it. Johnny Cash was never asked to change once. Didn’t have to change his outfit. All black. “Go ahead, baby. Keep going.”
This is a bit of a non sequitur, but I have a feeling you’ll like it. Pick one: Michael Corleone or Marlo Stanfield.
There’s such a rogue sophistication about him and just young being amongst those other kingpins and dealers and he didn’t give a fuck. His youth and his brashness is so crazy. I felt it. I just felt it every time a scene came on. When he got the reins, he made sure that everybody, old to young, felt it. I call it shrewd. He was a shrewd businessman. They been out there, they been doing their thing, whatever the case. Man, he didn’t give a fuck. He was the man when it was the time to be the man. And when he held the reins, he made sure that everybody knew it. I own this shit. I’m running this shit.
So this one is going to sound similarly weird, but bear with me: Do you ever feel like you were born in the wrong decade?
Oh, no. Not at all.
Not at all, man. I am so happy actually of all that I’ve got to see and experience. And I believe the eras in which I came up in and the eras in which I was young and still got to witness—my brother is five years older than me, so I got to see the golden age of hip-hop and come of age through the ’90s, 2000s—I believe that’s given me classic reference points that I can always pull from. When you think about time and when you think about today and culture, everything is pulling from all of the eras that I lived through, that I came of age in. Everything. Man, listen. I’m in New York City. I was just driving and I see Dapper Dan at the Gap, bro.
That shit will never not be crazy.
Fuck the Gucci part. OK, cool. We got that one. But now Dapper Dan is based at the Gap. ... Just all the things that we wanted as kids. I just fucking brought a whole bunch of vintage Le Coq Sportif because of fucking “Brand New Funk” and Will Smith—Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff. You know what I’m saying? I got to live through all of those different eras for those to be just reference points of greatness to bring back.
Have you ever feared becoming a diluted version of yourself?
What gives you that kind of faith?
I think my ears are really good. When my ears go bad, then I’ll bow out. When I stop being competitive, I’ll bow out. When I start just existing, I’ll bow out. When I feel like there are people in my lane or people are coming in my lane and they’re leveling up my lane—because I feel like I have a real lane. I don’t think people can do what I do. I mean, like really do it in rap, streets, and taste. Nah, nobody has all three.
OK. Last question: When I say the word “home,” where do you think of?
Have you ever worried that that response might be different?
Oh no, no. I’ve always lived in Virginia the whole time. I stepped out and moved to Maryland maybe like six years ago, I think. I lived there for like five, six years. And then more recently I moved to Northern Virginia. And then I have a house still in Southeastern Virginia, 757, Virginia Beach, Norfolk area.
Hampton Roads. So yeah. So I mean, no, I’ve never lived really anywhere outside of that. And I’ve never wanted to. And I don’t like places more than I like my home. I think it is the reason why it keeps me incomparable musically. I think it’s very pure. I’m pulling from very pure energy when I’m at home. I could never live in New York. I could never live in fucking L.A. I’d die.