Pusha T coughs. For a moment, the mystique vanishes. He coughs again. The world shakes. Is hip-hop’s reigning villain sick? Do villains get sick? Nothing in 2018 could stop Terrence Thornton from razing the crops of his enemies and salting their soil. His winter cough is humanizing.
Machiavellian, brutal and unforgiving, the Virginia rapper has seen numerous battles play out over the course of his career, ranging from the label woes of his Clipse days to trading barbs with Lil Wayne. Over the 20 years he’s grown acutely aware of how to maneuver himself into winning what matters most — the wars, not the battles. In 2018, two of those wars ended. Or, at least, they provided Pusha T with the type of moment that’s eluded his eight-year solo career: a victory lap in the spotlight. The first was waged against our Canadian pop overlord. You know how it went. The other was a far longer, more personal gambit. It was Pusha T betting that if he kept perfecting exactly what he did best, the public would eventually be ready for it. A decade long fight to keep his brand of rap alive, and to cement his solo career into with a diamond-solid album.
He called it Daytona, after the Rolex of the same name. The title is a symbol for the luxury of time. “I’m not giving you my heart in these seven? This is the luxury of time, we have the luxury of time to create this masterpiece, this [is] concise and we’re respecting your time by not making you sit through filler so we can stream longer or more,” he told Rolling Stone. At 41 years old, it’s a luxury that is finally on his side.
Over the phone, Push speaks like he raps — every word is deliberate and manicured, chosen with care. He discussed the first Grammy nomination of his career for Daytona, an award he admits he never had aspirations for, until maybe now.
On “Infrared” you rap “Remember Will Smith won the first Grammy? / And they ain’t even recognize Hov until “Annie” / So I don’t tap dance for the crackers and sing Mammy.” How does it feel that you have a Grammy nom and managed to do it without having to pander?
I think that’s the thing that has me the most proud about the nomination. I don’t think that there’s ever been a rap artist who’s been nominated for their work and it’s such a raw level. I look at Daytona, it has the same raw feel to me as my first album, ever. It has all of the same anger, all of the same ambition, it has all of the same energy as my earlier works. To me, I’ve never seen that really happen. I feel like every time anybody’s ever been nominated it’s always been, especially for rap categories, always been they had a stellar year, big single, the record crosses over to pop land and so on and so forth. I can’t say that I’ve seen this happen before.
What do you think it is that you get to stay dialed into that anger and that ambition you had when you were first coming out 20 years later, because that’s not the normal trajectory for a rapper?
Right, it never happened. I think it’s just the rules and the criteria and bars that I set for myself and the rules that I play by. This is lyric driven hip-hop, man. It has to be raw. It’s gotta make it for certain demographics. I really make it for a very niche, demographic who is very aware of street culture, very aware of certain luxuries. I treat the rap and infuse that with culture really well.
Daytona sounds like a culmination of your solo career and building that as something separate, but equal to Clipse. What distinguished the making of Daytona from My Name Is My Name or King Push — Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude?
I think that My Name Is My Name and Darkest Before Dawn were all lyrical masterpieces. I feel that both of those albums suffered from what great MCs suffer from all the time. Great MCs think they can rap over everything and it’s gonna sound great. I feel like the beats on both of those albums were good. They weren’t the best and they weren’t the best marriages all the time. Now I might’ve said something really great on a beat that wasn’t as powerful or potent as it could’ve been, but to me in my mind it was the best thing, because I said what I said. I feel like, for Daytona, the marriage between rhymes and the production was A1. I don’t think the beats overshined me. I don’t think I overshined the beats. I think it was a super-marriage and that’s the sole difference between Daytona and those other projects, to me.
Was it bittersweet being next to Mac? I was watching his memorial and you said some really touching words about working out with him. Was it bittersweet seeing yourself next to him?
No man, I thought it was good. I didn’t look Mac as a charity case, at all, because I thought Mac’s album was fire and I felt like people did. And people thought it was fire. I was sort of happy, like “Damn, to me this is the best of the best in a lot of different ways.” I listen to every last one of those albums, every last one of ‘em.
“Rap Album of the Year” has been a slogan and rallying cry for you and your fans. Why make that distinction that it’s “Rap Album of the Year,” not just the best album, period?Because I care about rap. I’m not competing in other genres. I care about rap. [Laughs] They cheat so much in those other genres. It’s like man, whatever. I’m into rap.
In terms of the rap categories, Grammy voters are starting to get better about picking music that’s more in line with popular consensus. However, hip-hop music as a whole is still at a disadvantage when it comes to those general categories. Do you think that other rappers get the opportunity to compete with Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Album of the Year?
Well, other rappers do and I mean other artists do. I like to differentiate, man. Other artists do get to fall in line with those categories. To expound upon what you said, how long ago was that that they changed the rules for hip-hop? Was that a year or two years?
I think it’s only been two years since they’ve been going after more women, more people of color and trying to get them to vote, but we’re still kind of at a disadvantage just numbers-wise with voters.
They even created a committee. Don’t they?
Yeah, there’s a committee. [Editor’s Note: The Task Force on Diversity & Inclusion was formed in early 2018]
When I first heard of that, that was my first glimpse of excitement of even, you know I never really had Grammy aspirations. Right? Never. Then I was really used to seeing just from my era coming up it was almost damn near cool to whip out a Grammy and shit like that. Like we can name all of the great people who have done it in a rap year. So when I found out that they were even doing something different as far as the nominations and creating a committee that had people that I respected on it and people who worked in the culture I was like, ‘Man, that’s dope.’ I definitely give them an A for effort for that.
That’s when I even start thinking, ‘OK, damn let’s see how this goes.’ So even when I saw my category I looked at the category and was like, ‘I understand.’ There been times where I didn’t even understand the rap category. I fully, fully, fully understood my category and it’s like you know you can look at it, you know why Cardi’s here, why Travis is here, myself, Nipsey, Mac. You look at it and it wasn’t anything that was off base in those nominations and I felt that’s like a really good thing. Cause now when you have a category that’s strong like that it makes you want to watch.