Pusha T’s New Album Is a Gift That Keeps on Giving

Daytona is outstanding. The feud it stoked could be even better.

Pusha T, Drake.
Pusha T and Drake. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images, Aaron M. Sprecher/AFP/Getty Images.

Pusha T’s Daytona, released on Friday, is 22 minutes of some of the best music of 2018, a tightly packed, seven-track brick of swagger and menace, flawlessly produced by a right-leaning microblogger. In a year that has brought blockbuster rap albums the length of movies and blockbuster movies the length of baseball games, Daytona is that rarest of gifts: an intricately appointed and lavishly exciting work that actually leaves you wishing there was much more of it.

If you’re unfamiliar with Pusha T’s oeuvre, you might consult this primer I wrote for Slate back in 2013, on the eve of his terrific solo debut, My Name Is My Name. It’s nearly 5 years old now but it still mostly holds, because one of Pusha T’s best qualities is that he doesn’t change very much. He has spent his entire career rapping about one thing and one thing only—selling drugs—but complaining about that is a bit like complaining that Tim Duncan spent his entire career only playing basketball. No one who’s ever heard Pusha T rap about drugs has even once wished he’d do anything else.

Daytona’s first track, “If You Know You Know,” sputters a bit off the line—its opening bars feature Push rapping nearly a cappella, a quasi–spoken word intro that doesn’t suit him. After about 40 seconds, the beat kicks in, and rap heaven opens. Over a pounding backdrop that seems to blend trap, dancehall, and a bass part that sounds like a spaceship taking off, Pusha runs through a three-minute feast of braggadocio, wordplay, and deeply informed references to the history of the American cocaine trade. Two tracks later comes “Hard Piano,” a collaboration with Rick Ross, who’s fresh off a health crisis but has rarely sounded sprier than he does here. “Still do the Fred Astaire on a brick/ Tap tap, throw the phone if you hear it click,” raps Pusha, a dazzling couplet that turns a Hollywood icon into a metaphor for both stepped-on cocaine and DEA wiretapping. “Santeria” features Pusha rapping over a chopped-up sample of Soul Mann & the Brothers’ cover of Isaac Hayes’ “Bumpy’s Lament,” a track familiar to hip-hop fans for the spooky guitar part that forms the basis of Lil Kim’s classic “Drugs.” It’s not the first time Push has rapped over this sample—see “Ultimate Flow,” the last track on Clipse’s classic 2005 mixtape, We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 2, which recycled the “Drugs” beat even more directly. Easter eggs like this abound on Daytona, and the album both compels and rewards our attention, a fitting tribute to a career marked by myopic focus.

Two main storylines have thus far dominated most of the discussion of this album, neither of which deserve to take the spotlight away from Pusha himself. The first is the aforementioned producer: According to Push, Kanye West produced every single beat on this record by himself, a somewhat startling development given the extent to which West’s own recent work has relied on armies of collaborators. The production on Daytona is customarily exquisite, with tracks built around retuned samples of Booker T. Averheart’s “Heart ’n’ Soul” (“The Games We Play”), Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band’s “High as Apple Pie—Slice II,” and other types of selections from which West once built his musical reputation. As for the rest of his reputation, West’s only verse on Daytona, on “What Would Meek Do,” is the weakest moment on the album, a leaden mix of aggrievement and misguided provocation. “If you ain’t drivin’ while black, do they stop you?/ Will MAGA hats let me slide like a drive-thru?” raps Kanye, a fit of fake-deep fuckery that, like so many of his recent utterances, should have stayed in his drafts folder. At least no one will accuse him of not writing his own rhymes.

Which brings us to our second storyline: Pusha’s reignition of a long-simmering beef with Drake. “The lyric pennin’ equal the Trumps winnin’/ The bigger question is how the Russians did it/ It was written like Nas, but it came from Quentin,” raps Push at the start of the album’s last track, “Infrared,” a reference to Drake’s alleged use of ghostwriter Quentin Miller that was the impetus for Drake’s wildly entertaining 2015 beef with Meek Mill. For his part, Drake wasted no time firing back at Pusha on Friday with the delightfully salty “Duppy Freestyle,” on which he insinuates that he himself ghostwrote rhymes for West’s The Life of Pablo.

The roots of this feud go back an entire generation, to when Clipse first took some shots at Lil Wayne on their 2006 masterpiece, Hell Hath No Fury. Lil Wayne fired back in several interviews and, later, on Twitter. Drake then caught some collateral heat on Pusha’s 2012 single “Exodus 23:1,” which found Push sniping not just at Wayne but his entire Young Money organization, which by then included the future 6 God. Pusha and Drake have continued to go back-and-forth over the years, but the twin assaults of “Infrared” and “Duppy Freestyle” have raised the temperature to sizzling.

Provided it remains within the bounds of the studio—a qualifier that, more than 20 years after Biggie and Tupac, still feels like it needs to be made explicit—the Pusha T–vs.-Drake beef should offer up an embarrassment of riches to come for rap fans. For starters, both artists are at their best when feuding with others, since it forces them to talk about something other than themselves, a shared Achilles’ heel of two otherwise vastly dissimilar artists. Pusha T is modern-day rap’s closest thing to a to-thine-own-self-be-true extremist, a guy who’s built his legend by literally rapping about the same subject for decades, even when the circumstances of his life have changed dramatically. (Pusha has been president of West’s GOOD Music imprint since 2015, and in 2016 he worked extensively with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.) Pusha isn’t a pop star, nor has he ever shown much interest in becoming one: He’s a purist and a stoic, a guy who doggedly reinvents his own wheel each time out, and each time it’s as great as the last.

Drake, on the other hand, is one of the most commercially successful and pop-friendly rappers in history. He’s media-savvy in every respect, and probably the most inveterate trend hopper in music. These are qualities that have irritated a lot of people over the years, but they’ve also made him one of the most significant and vital artists of his era. He seems to reinvent himself at every turn, fashioning his home base of Toronto—arguably the most diverse city in the world—into a sort of passport to roam the global musical zeitgeist and then deliver it back to his fans. The opposite of a stoic, he’s rap’s premier emotionalist, a quality that’s occasionally made him the object of ridicule but has also made him very, very rich.

The best rap beefs have always doubled as ideological referendums on the state of the music itself: where it’s been, where it’s going, and the best way to reconcile the two. You don’t have to look far to see fraught dichotomies that are roiling below the surface of this one: art vs.
commerce, authenticity vs. fluidity, rootedness vs. cosmopolitanism. (The assorted ghostwriting charges, in particular, contain elements of all of these.) Sift through all that and you’re left with two great artists who are constitutionally incapable of relinquishing the last word. Daytona is a brisk work, but there’s every indication that its reverberations will far exceed its running time, which is lucky for us.

Update, 9:10 p.m.: Pusha T has responded to Drake in scorched-earth fashion, premiering “The Story of Adidon” on Funkmaster Flex’s radio show Tuesday night. The track features Pusha rapping over the beat from Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.” and accusing Drake of fathering a secret son with French model and ex–porn star Sophie Brussaux. “Surgical summer,” as Pusha calls it, is heating up! Listen below: