How gangsta is Pusha T? So gangsta that on his first official solo album, the killer My Name Is My Name, the marvelously menacing Virginia rapper includes a soaring inspirational anthem, “Hold On”—and invites the profoundly unsentimental Rick Ross to join him on it. (Though “[you] couldn’t fathom my wealth/Build a school in Ethiopia/should enroll there myself” may be Ross’s most civic-minded statement yet.) He’s so gangsta that he calls a song that features Chris Brown “Sweet Serenade.” He’s so gangsta that he has Jeezy, a relic of the peak-thug era, rap on “No Regrets.”
Pusha—one half of the sadly dormant coke rap duo Clipse, prolific mixtape and guest rapper and member of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music—sums himself up this way on “No Regrets”: “Nowadays I sell hope/what, you rather I sell dope?/What I sell is a lifestyle/naked bitches on sailboats.” That’s “hope” the way Rick Ross can understand it. Pusha remains a deadpan, do-it-to-death thug whose self-awareness never undermines his drug-dealer fairy tales.
Which makes him an exception among the great rappers with recent albums. Danny Brown, who just released the terrific Old, uses meanness as just another one of his masks. Drake surrenders to complexity—he’s tougher on Nothing Was the Same, but still like a boyfriend who’s needy at home and aloof around your friends. On Doris, Earl Sweatshirt is utterly—and engrossingly—cerebral. And then there are the A$APs: image jockey Rocky and the inspiringly weird Ferg. Pusha may be the last gangsta standing—not an anachronistic monolith, but a living, snarling monument to hardcore hip hop.
On My Name, Pusha doesn’t evolve so much as expand his reach. Here he’s got Kanye, his old Clipse coach Pharrell Williams and other spot-on producers furnishing sounds to break down obstacles: bowel-loosening low ends, samples used like safe-cracking tools, mini hooks resembling grappling equipment—and that’s just in “Numbers on the Board” (an awesome Don Cannon and Kanye West production). Clipse’s beats were almost cartoonishly tough and minimal, like a private investigator’s lines in an old movie. My Name preserves that edge, but adds emotional fluency. Rick Ross may describe his first memory in “Hold On” by saying, “I was pissing my shorts/having rich nigga thoughts,” but plumped out with piano and some wounded Auto-Tune vocals, the song actually achieves poignancy.
That isn’t something Pusha T normally shoots for—he’s more likely to let off a few rounds in poignancy’s direction. But he’s never just presented a hard surface. In fact, he’s got some of the cutest asides in rap. My Name abounds with on-the-lighter-side allusions: “I might sell a brick on my birthday/36 years of doing dirt like it’s Earth Day” (“Numbers on the Board”); “Balance on the scale, I ain’t a Libra either” (“Suicide”); “Black Ferris Bueller, cutting school with his jewels on” (bonus bad pun: “Nosetalgia”).
Pusha doesn’t do gallows humor. He’s a wisecracking hardass who underplays his jokes as well as his threats, to reinforce the sense of his complete control. He’s ruthless plumbing his own emotional depths, too. On “40 Acres,” a deliberate, lonely foghorn of a song with The-Dream’s vocals draped over long sections, Pusha squares his personal history with the cliche of the dysfunctional inner-city family: “We was born to mothers who couldn’t deal with us/left by fathers who wouldn’t build with us/I had both mine home, let’s keep it real, niggas.”
Not that the nuclear family saved him, or lasted forever: Pusha remembers breaking bad while his brother “chose the better path,” and his mother leaving his father after 35 years of marriage. And although he supports his family, he’s got some serious doubts about himself: “And they say I’m on the verge of winning/I’ll claim victory when Malice on the verge of sinnin’,” he raps, referring to that brother, his partner in Clipse, who is now a Christian rapper calling himself No Malice. How poignant is that? A bad man bereft of his best bad friend.