We tend to define an athlete’s legacy based on how well they perform when the stakes are highest and the burden of victory is heaviest. If you never succeed under pressure in a clutch moment, the thinking goes, you can’t rightfully be considered an all-time great. It’s reductive, sure, but also the standard by which we crown legends.
Consider, then, the career of Pusha-T, an artist who until recently was the rap equivalent of a regular-season stat padder, an All-Star journeyman coasting into middle age on undeniable yet unchallenged talent. That decadelong narrative changed in five days. Last Friday, Pusha-T dropped Daytona, by far his best solo work: seven tightly wound, acerbic tracks helmed by Kanye West as the opening salvo of a series of forthcoming GOOD Music albums. The immediate outpouring of positive responses to Daytona was cut short when Drake, who was goaded by a few choice barbs on album closer “Infrared,” issued a same-day rebuttal, “Duppy Freestyle.” One long holiday weekend later, Pusha-T delivered his nuclear “The Story of Adidon” comeback diss against Drake, setting Twitter aflame Tuesday evening for the second time in short order.
So: In roughly 120 hours, Pusha-T released the album of his life, absorbed a body shot from the no. 1 rapper in the game, and then fired back with a knockout blow that is already being discussed among the best battle records in rap history. At age 41, Pusha-T finally reached a legacy-defining moment, and he seized it with gusto. It’s been a long time coming.
For most of his career, Pusha-T has been more of a scourge than a star. Before the events of the past five days, one could argue that he merited more widespread acclaim, given that he’s been fairly consistent for 15 years and released well-regarded music both as one-half of the duo Clipse and as a solo artist. “Your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper” is a familiar sobriquet for Pusha, he of the hyperarticulate diction and thrilling turns of phrase, all in service of depicting the highs and—well, mostly the highs of the drug trade. Along the way he’s been the dope-boy mouthpiece for two of hip-hop’s biggest producers—Pharrell Williams and the Neptunes during the Clipse era and now Kanye—but he never came close to replicating their fame. Still: If you knew, you knew.
Pusha-T’s presence on the periphery was partly by choice, and partly by circumstance. He has always thrived as a virus or disruptor, then and now. This was true when he was rhyming alongside his older brother, Malice, as Clipse on seminal coke-dealing tracks like “Grindin’,” or acting as the bump that charged Justin Timberlake’s first solo single, “Like I Love You,” both in 2002. It was also Pusha’s M.O. when he and Malice squabbled with Jive Records during the delay that held up Clipse’s second release, 2006’s Hell Hath No Fury, and when Clipse provoked Lil Wayne in the song and video for that album’s “Mr. Me Too”—a staredown that started the Cash Money cold war, which culminated in the current Drake-Pusha firestorm. And it was especially true when Pusha-T made a star turn at the end of Kanye’s “Runaway” in 2010, adding a perfect dose of irritant to the most obnoxious of anthems. Pusha-T has historically been more comfortable as a scene-stealing character actor than as a leading man. That finally changed this week.
In his earlier years, Pusha-T was your favorite rap journalist’s favorite rapper. Writers who were too young to document the rise of the Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z cut their teeth writing about Clipse, who inherited the torch as the preeminent orators of drug folktales in the early-to-mid aughts. Their debut, Lord Willin’, and its follow-up, Hell Hath No Fury, elevated the genre to new heights. The rhymes were slicker, the beats were posher, and, consequently, the endeavor of drug-dealing itself was made to feel more irresistibly entertaining, in the way a contact sport can be glorified by ignoring the real-life consequences for its participants.
After going solo and swapping A-list camps (from Pharrell’s to Ye’s) around 2010, Pusha grew older and richer, but his playbook remained the same. If there was an evolution, it was from aspirational rap to full-on delusions of grandeur, expressed with the same impeccable wordplay. Meanwhile, some of the journalists who first covered him grew a little older and a little richer, too, wielding increased influence as editors and industry gatekeepers. So, despite a string of unremarkable solo projects, Pusha never quite fell out of media favor. That’s largely due to his ability and the high profile of his collaborators, but also because Pusha’s singular asset—fantastically imaginative coke bars—is one that is no longer in high demand in an era that celebrates the nihilism of drug addiction over the stoicism of drug commerce. To the old guard, however, Pusha remained the best at his trade, almost by default.
The adjective “cold” has often been used to describe Pusha’s rapping, for both better and worse. His persona is defined by a calculating menace that is often too clever, and too self-aware of its cleverness, to feel menacing. The net effect of his music, then, is not really a feeling at all, but a lack of one. Pusha spits with a purposeful precision that is also purposefully detached. So too did Biggie and Hov; the successful kingpin of lore must repress emotion to survive the horrors of the drug game. But to feel believable and organic, that detachment has to be earned, and lived in, and sometimes even abandoned; in the latter years of Pusha’s career, his detachment has felt more and more cynical, the result of a voluntary stylistic choice and not an inevitable outcome.
To win at anything in life requires full engagement. Daytona, wholly conceived with Kanye, is Pusha-T back in his prime form, distilling the essence of his coke-dream glory into a bracing 21-minute package that reaches highs that have eluded him since he left Clipse. (Pusha’s album, it should be noted, also took a lot of heat off of his MAGA-hat-wearing mentor while providing the ideal setup for Ye’s reported June 1 release.) “The Story of Adidon,” on the other hand, is Pusha-T staking out entirely new ground for himself and his career. The Drake diss finds Pusha alone in the spotlight: no guest feature, no Malice, no Pharrell, no Kanye, and not even any coke references to lean on. We’re left with the urgent sound of a reinvigorated rapper at the height of his relevance, rapping passionately to forcefully ensure that he will stay there. If Pusha-T wasn’t in the conversation for all-timers before, he’s inching closer now. But even as Pusha revels in his present glory, he’ll soon face the question for anyone who’s won a ring: Can he do it again?