Pusha-T’s third – and best – solo album is a marvel of musical precision. On this 21-minute, EP-length collaboration with producer Kanye West no moment is wasted. If this seven-song collection being marketed as an album statement seems frustratingly incomplete, it’s only because Pusha T and West leave the audience wanting more. As usual, Pusha presents himself as the all-knowing veteran dope dealer who pushes product to his consumers. “I predict snow/Al Roker,” he promises on “If You Know You Know,” an opening track buttressed by snippets of ragga chants and a digital dancehall rhythm constructed from Ypsilanti, Michigan’s Seventies hard rock also-rans Air. It’s a conceit he has maintained throughout a career that dates back to the late Nineties as one-half of Clipse, the ferociously talented duo he formed with his brother Malice (now a born-again Christian rapper performing as No Malice). Pusha’s ongoing role as a post-millennial Superfly has spurred countless lyrical fireworks: See his assertion on West’s “So Appalled” that he “gave you Bobby Brown jaw.” But here, it feels less an end to itself than metaphor for Pusha T’s ethos as a pure MC. In other words, he doesn’t cut his lyrical cocaine with pop fillers.
“I’m too rare amongst all of this pink hair … ooh!” he crows on “Hard Piano,” a track stacked with ominous keyboard runs that also features Rick Ross, his fellow conjurer of drug money vistas. Fortunately, Pusha T doesn’t rely heavily on the “dudes in skinny jeans” arguments that can make grown-man rap albums seem tedious and out-of-touch. However, he builds an argument for the art of speaking real words to convey inner thought over the melodic singing/rapping flows now common among hip-hop’s elite. “To all of you young niggas, I am your Ghost and your Rae/This is my Purple Tape,” he raps on “The Games We Play,” alluding to Raekwon and Ghostface Killah’s famed coke-rap opus Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.
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Then there’s “Come Back Baby,” where he raps, “They don’t miss you ’til you gone with the wind/And they tired of dancing like a Ying Yang Twin/You can’t have the yin without the yang, my friend/And real niggas bring balance to the game I’m in.” While some fans that predate the rise of N.W.A will dispute the idea that street rap is the apotheosis of uncompromised hip-hop, Pusha-T makes an eloquent claim that rap-for-rap’s sake brings balance to a culture forever teetering between hardcore idealism and pop triviality. It’s a powerful assertion of creative intent. In this context, Daytona’s fire-starting album closer “Infrared” is more than a petulant resurrection of old tabloid beefs. It’s his opinion on why some succeed – and fail – to maintain artistic relevance, complete with examples. Comparing Drake’s use of Quentin Miller as a ghostwriter to President Donald Trump and Russian hackers is hilariously unfair; less so is his charge against Baby, the Cash Money label boss who tangles with protégé Lil Wayne in an ongoing lawsuit over his recording contracts: “Flash without the fire/Another multi-platinum rapper trapped and can’t retire.”
“I don’t tap dance for the crackers and sing ‘Mammy’/’Cause I’m supposed to juggle these flows and nose candy,” Pusha says. Generously, he says he “believes in the Coles and Kendricks.”
Pusha T’s controlled, slightly hostile rap flow is expected, but West’s similarly disciplined performance behind the boards and, in a short vocal cameo, on “What Would Meek Do?” may come as a surprise after his recent, self-inflicted controversies. His innovative but restrained production choices are reminiscent of his awe-inspiring work on Yeezus, that fragile moment before he seemed to slip into self-indulgence. In many ways, Daytona replicates Jay-Z and No I.D.’s 2017 rap highlight 4:44: two older men who simply practice their craft, their legacies already secure.