One of the best and hardest things about musical genres is that they age more gracefully than we do. This has been a remarkable year for hip-hop music and a disorienting one for its fans, particularly those of a certain age, as rap has moved in new, far-flung, and sometimes difficult directions. Marquee releases from Yeezus to Magna Carta Holy Grail to Nothing Was the Same to Bangerz (yes, Bangerz) have provoked questions and controversies over what the music should sound like, sell like, act like, look like. Throw in the outer-mainstream acclaim garnered by works as diverse as Killer Mike and El-P’s Run The Jewels, Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap, and Danny Brown’s Old (out this week), and hip-hop’s directions have never seemed so varied, so expansive, so contentious.
In such times a solo debut by a battle-tested demi-legend from Virginia Beach by way of the Bronx—a rapper of concentrated interests whom Kanye West himself has described as “the heart of the motherfucking culture,” who’s been doing dirt since Miley was in a highchair and has as much use for Marina Abramović as the fish for the proverbial bicycle—might promise a port in the storm, a comforting shot of the familiar. Pusha T’s My Name Is My Name has been long anticipated, delayed, rumored about, gradually and strategically leaked. For months Pusha has been telling everyone within earshot that it’s the best rap album of the year, and now that it’s here he might be right. My Name Is My Name is a 12-track brick of razor-cut rhymes, bone-rattling beats, and SMFH swagger, not a port in the storm so much as a storm in itself. It’s also an album that proves that the way to make a great rap record in 2013 when you’re on the wrong side of 35 is through focus, care, embrace of the new, and a whole lot of work. In other words, the same way the kids have always done.
A brief history of Terrence “Pusha T” Thornton: born in the Bronx in 1977, he moved to Virginia as a child and founded the duo known as Clipse with his brother, Gene “Malice” Thornton. In 2002, Clipse broke out with “Grindin’,” a masterpiece of snarling rhymes and ungodly clatter produced by the Thornton brothers’ childhood friends, the Neptunes. Three albums followed, including one flat-out classic—2006’s Hell Hath No Fury—and in 2010 Pusha T went solo, signed with Kanye West’s GOOD Music label, and scored a star turn on West’s hit “Runaway.” Guest spots, compilations and mixtapes followed, and here we are.
I mentioned above that Pusha T is a man of concentrated interests, which is a polite way of saying that Pusha T raps about drugs. He raps about acquiring drugs, he raps about processing drugs, he raps about distributing drugs, he raps about things he acquires from distributing drugs, he raps about acquiring more drugs. Sometimes he raps about how all this rapping is getting in the way of his drugs. He does not rap about politics or sports or history, unless of course those subjects can be spun into a metaphor for drugs: “scoring from the heights but I wanted mine purer/ Aryan, blonde hair, blue eyed like the Fuhrer,” raps Push on “Hold On,” an eyebrow-raising analogy that nonetheless leaves little doubt to the quality of his shit.
Making and consuming music like this presents a bit of a moral thicket, the conundrum of really great art about really bad things, and while My Name Is My Name is too polished to partake in the almost neurotic nihilism of Clipse’s (best) music, Pusha still lives in this tension. What elevates his work above shock or crass exploitation is its lavish attention to language, style, and storytelling. On My Name Is My Name Pusha spits vivid tapestries of dogged striving, menacing accumulation, hard and vengeful power struggles, topics that are as reliably interesting as a rich dude talking about his art collection is reliably dull. Pusha T is a genre writer who’s also blessed with an absolutely vicious flow, and for all his obsessions with The Wire (the album’s title is a direct reference) he’s more Vince Gilligan than David Simon, down to the loving attention bestowed upon process: “Arm and hammer and a mason jar, that’s my dinner date/ Crack the window in the kitchen, let it ventilate.” Cue up Tommy James and the Shondells.
As an artist, Pusha T has numerous gifts but two in particular stand out. The first is that he is preternaturally good at knowing what he is good at. My Name Is My Name is a great album while rarely being an overly ambitious one, and is at its best when Push keeps to his comfort zone. Its most glaring misstep is “Let Me Love You,” a duet with Kelly Rowland that sounds like the Pusha T Mase tribute track that no one asked for, and lines like “Chanel or Celine, however I see you/ Christians or Chloe, damn them C’s too” land like he’s looking them up on Rap Genius as he says them. Luckily it’s followed up by the fantastic “Who I Am,” in which Push declares, “I just want to sell dope forever/ I just want to be who I am.” Sounds like a plan.
The second gift is that Pusha T has a genius for attracting other people’s genius; throughout his career he’s had the double-edged fortune of working with producers whose star power is so bright that it has sometimes occluded his own. The production on My Name Is My Name was broadly overseen by West, and Kanye’s own beats—including “Numbers on the Boards,” the album’s lead single and its best track—are predictably stunning. But My Name Is My Name is a Pusha T record first and foremost, and its best revelation is what a unique force of charisma he’s become. Pusha is not a lyrical virtuoso, nor is he a larger-than-life figment a la Rick Ross: Instead he’s something more subtle and compelling, a scrappy hustler, the veteran foot soldier who’s found his spotlight, that rare combination of grizzled and hungry.
In a year of so much upheaval in rap it might be tempting to praise My Name Is My Name as a throwback, an album by a 21st-century O.G. that belongs to a world where hip-hop still happens by hooking dope rhymes to dope beats and everything else staying out of the way. But to speak of music this good in conservative terms is to miss its power, and its point. The 10th track on My Name Is My Name is “Nosetalgia,” a much-celebrated duet with Compton-based MC Kendrick Lamar, who less than a year ago released his own debut album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, the type of audacious, put-the-world-on-notice work that’s the exclusive province of the young. Over a wheezing, guitar-drenched beat Pusha reminisces on “twenty-plus years of selling Johnson & Johnson;” Kendrick follows with an absolutely ferocious verse that further confirms what he keeps telling us, that in 2013 he’s the best rapper on Earth. The song slowly drifts to its fade, chased by a sample of Boogie Down Productions’ 1987 classic “The Bridge Is Over,” a track that came out the year Pusha turned 10 and the year Kendrick was born. The heart of “the motherfucking culture” is right, and while the culture might be changing its heart is beating fine, as hard and agelessly as ever.