BEST OF 2015: Pusha T
He has been named president of G.O.O.D. Music, Kanye’s West label record, the rap star Pusha T has already lived several lives. Numéro has met him up.
An initial success with the Clipse, followed by a sudden break-up, and then a solo renaissance thanks to Kanye West. Influenced by recent events in Baltimore, his second album, King Push, confirms his political awakening.
“Funeral flowers, every 26 hours, being laid over ours. Born to protect and serve, but who really got the power?” Pusha T recites his verse in passionate, precise syllables. He’s cruising across the bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan in a black luxury SUV, but his mind is hundreds of miles away, thinking about burning buildings in Baltimore. “I ain’t got no march in me. I can’t turn the other cheek,” he raps, his voice rising in rhythms that echo Malcolm X. “Why they testing your patience? They’re only testing my reach.” These are the lyrics to Sunshine, from the rap star’s upcoming second solo album, King Push. He wrote them after watching the people of Baltimore rise up this spring against the murder by police of a young black man named Freddie Gray, and against the decades of systemic racism that led to that moment. While President Obama tut-tutted the protesters who took the streets with rocks and fire, Pusha identified with their anger. “It’s the Chuck D perspective,” he says. “I don’t think that America understands how fed up young, black, aggressive men are right now. People are tired of being victimized. And you’re dealing with a generation of young people – these kids are going to act, and it can definitely get worse.”
Explicit radical politics are a new theme for Pusha T, but his 16-year career has proved that few rappers are better at summoning righteous outrage. From the late 90s onward, he was known as the louder, bolder half of the Clipse, the highly respected Virginia rap duo he formed with his brother Gene (known at the time as Malice). “My brother is five years older and wiser,” says Pusha, who was born Terrence Thornton. “He was always the voice of reason. I was the brash one.” About three years ago, his brother found God, changed his stage name to No Malice, and broke up the Clipse, despite Pusha’s objections.
In the meantime he’s built a formidable solo career, starting with 2013’s My Name is My Name. Although the breakup saddened him, it also pushed him forward: Pusha admits that the end of the Clipse forced him to evolve toward new subject matter and more expansive sounds. “Having my brother around was a crutch for me – it was Clipse or nothing,” he says. “Without him around, I play the game differently.” He’s had a powerful patron on that path in Kanye West, who signed Pusha to his G.O.O.D. Records imprint in 2010 and oversaw both My Name Is My Name and King Push as an executive producer. Pusha talks about Kanye the way art historians describe Michelangelo staring at a rough block of Tuscan marble until he saw David. “Kanye sculpts things,” he says. “You only have to give him an iota of something great, and he knows how to take that and turn it into a rainbow.”
King Push, by Pusha T, out soon.
By Simon Vozick-Levinson.