My mother is a battered and wise veteran substance-abuse counselor, with most of her career playing out during the crack boom on the south side of Chicago during the last three decades. Woman has seen a lot. But somehow, perhaps because she understands the deep seeds of human frailty, the codes written into some people’s genes, and the social or emotional circumstances leading to drug abuse, she is an empathetic, not a cynical or judgmental person. However, she leveled one judgment to me in her time; saying once, and only once, “I really hate drug dealers. Drug dealers are the scum of the earth.” I have the feeling she was not referring to your schlubby neighborhood dope dealer, but rather to those selling harder stuff to the poor and the wretched.
This moral judgment kept erupting in my mind as I disappointedly listened to “My Name is My Name,” the pretend debut of Pusha T’s solo career. Unlike Rick Ross and other phonies, Push really was a dealer (Re-Up Gang affiliates have been put away for decades for their involvement in a big wig drug ring), and consequently, his career in the game has featured one of the realest, grimmest takes on the economics of the drug trade, and its relative, evil. One friend once very eloquently summed it up by saying that Clipse had “a very intimate relationship with Satan.”
This complicated celebration of ill-gotten gains has been the defining thematic content of Clipse; the Neptunes’ minimal clickity clack beats on Clipse’s first two albums had a bleak, almost apocalyptic ghetto sound that was entirely their own; spliced into all of this were some of the best rhymes to come from any rappers ever, with the duo appreciating not just deep metaphor and word play, but the sounds of consonants stacked together, rhymes of such sonic and Biblical gravity that Dante, another poet of evil, would surely have died of envy.
But the Clipse disbanded. Malice took the road to righteousness; on “Freedom,” his conversion flows in celestial rays, illuminating the god/man divide he has encountered: “This is where the buck stop/ here where I draw the line/ I’ve touched the hem/ god’s work is so divine/ i’ve seen the error of my ways over time/ …/ Malicious has been refined.” Malice recently released a Christian rap album under the name “No Malice.”
The only thing refined on MNIMN is, per usual, the quality of the brick, powder, snow, blow, arm & hammer, raw; the singular metaphor at the deepest level of Push: cocaine. Push’s godliness is in the guise of his earthly, material powers; he believes there’s a god above him, he’s just the god of everything else. He is a methodical thinker and dealer, “like Scarface, but it’s God’s face in that mirror/ we was made in his image, dialing and it’s much clearer/ scoring from the heights but I wanted mine purer,” But how pure, Push? “Aryan, blonde hair, blue-eyed like the Führer.” That line alone is so fucked. Diamonds and Aryans are what prop up on this album as objects of purity. I wish he’d go to church, and stop being so young, rich, and tasteless, yuck!
Anyway, Push’s fierceness remains one of the last genuine primordial forces in mainstream rap. At the same time, it’s an unchanging mask, projected to a larger commercial audience since people never got it the first 4-6 times he tried to tell you about him. This late in the day, long-time Pusha fans might feel tired. Tired of him holding on to his embittered, battle-hardened dealer identity. One wishes for a narrative turn, a denouement, or some sort of epiphany, anything, anything to mitigate the unrelenting trillest hustler business. His diamond, so pure when compared with everyone else’s, he claims, is at this point turning back into coal.
4 of MNIMN’s 12 songs were released before the album; of the singles, “Numbers on the Boards,” “Nosetalgia” and “Pain” all happen to be the best tracks; so when it finally was released, I felt robbed, with most of the remaining songs reminding me of paler versions of things I’d heard before. Much of the production on the album sounds is reminiscent of perhaps a lesser G.O.O.D. Music mixtape; “King Push,” produced by Kanye, is an odd intro to choose, as it could easily be a lost track from Yeezus; its spastic, trembling bass and the scarily chipmunked vocal sample are totally Satanic, but in a way that suits Kanye better. “Let Me Love You,” is a re-tread of “Dirty Money,” Clipse’s catchiest song to date, and features an enjoyable return of Pusha’s lazy, Spanglish-inflected drawl, a stoned and carefree flow he only busts out when he is reminding ladies of their complete irrelevance to him (Push has a special derision for women, even for hip-hop, calling HIS OWN MOTHER a “bitch” on 40 Acres). “Hold On,” at first sounded cheap to me, a phone-it-in Kanye-produced effort in which gospel chords accompany a catharic autotuned Ye melody. But the longer I listened, the more I felt the pathos, specifically thanks to the Kanye singing.
It’s unclear in any of this Kanye-world-making-detritus whether Push can ever musically truly be at home; the Kanye crew fits him a little like some Bottega Venetta sneakers, unfastened; they look good, they’re fancy, but there’s something unfinished about the whole fashion.
The only time on MNIMN that Push is heading towards any sort of development as a rapper or moral sentient being is in “Nosetalgia,” with Kendrick, a rapper much more concerned with interior worlds than with material success. The first two verses of Push’s are a bildungsroman of the young dealer: we see a young Push, with beepers and a two-tone Starter jacket hustling in his early days. Kendrick then chimes in about witnessing his aunt and father on crack, bringing the human element that is always lacking from Push’s stories to the center of the song in crystalline, nostalgic imagery; a synthesis unfolds between the dealer and the consequences of his selling; the facilitating dealer, the addict, and passive victim all orbiting around each other in the same tune, for once.
There is no argument that Pusha remains one of the best rappers alive, based solely on his poetic sensibilities, on his ways with words. But there remains a pit in the center of his cocaine myopia, preventing him from being one of the most fascinating rappers alive; without a breathing, changing persona, all we get is the mask, the tautology, the name that is his name. And it’s not enough.