Where Do I Start With Pusha T, the Marlo Stanfield of Hip-Hop?

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Oct. 7 2013 5:03 PM

Where Do I Start With Pusha T?

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If Biggie and Jay were Barksdales, the coke-rap duo Clipse, featuring Pusha T, was Marlo Stanfield.

Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Today in Slate, Jack Hamilton reviews Pusha T’s much-anticipated solo debut My Name Is My Name, which drops tomorrow. Below, a guide to acquainting oneself with Virginia’s trillest MC.

Pusha T’s music is not for everyone! He is a rapper of myopic interests: namely, the trafficking of drugs and the spoils he accumulates from same. If you find this subject off-putting, you might be happier elsewhere; of course, if you find this subject off-putting, you’re probably not here in the first place.

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Terrence “Pusha T” Thornton is still best known as half of the legendary coke-rap duo Clipse (his brother, Gene “Malice” Thornton, is the other half). Clipse released three official albums, 2002’s Lord Willin’, 2006’s Hell Hath No Fury, and 2009’s Til The Casket Drops, as well as the three-part We Got It 4 Cheap mixtape series. Hath No Fury is widely considered the group’s masterpiece, a lean, unfathomably gripping work of brute creativity and dizzying swagger. In 2010 Malice and Pusha T went their separate ways, the former finding God, the latter signing with Kanye West’s GOOD Music (which West might argue is the same thing).

Pusha T is not a lyricist on par with Nas or Kendrick Lamar, nor is he an outsized personality cult like Rick Ross or Jay-Z. Clipse’s early music was marked by a strange anti-charisma: cold, methodical verses on the ins-and-outs of the crack game, delivered over devastating beats provided by Neptunes (Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams were childhood friends of the Thorntons). Plenty of rappers had rapped about drugs, but to borrow from Pusha’s favorite TV show, if Biggie and Jay were Barksdales, Clipse was Marlo Stanfield: icy, detached, indifferent to niceties of style. Yet Pusha T has become, in his way, a great rapper, a clever and infectiously appealing MC who blurs the divide between person and persona in the best of ways. For a man who raps about so many unpleasant things, Pusha T is remarkably likeable.

He’s also remarkably consistent, which makes picking a favorite verse difficult. But one could do worse than “Ride Around Shining,” a high point of Hell Hath No Fury and a nicely representative sample of Pusha’s gifts:

Paradise in reaches, home next to beaches
Hair pressed, blowin’ in the wind, shit ’bout long as Jesus
I still leave speech for gospel, so match this
Pusha push John P. ki’s with these sounds of crackness
The black Martha Stewart, let me show you how to do it
Break down pies to pieces, make cocaine quiches
Money piles high as my nieces

This is, simply put, a master class in creative ways of talking about cocaine. There’s the elaborate and totally heretical string of gospel music references (John P. Kee becomes “ki’s” of coke, Sounds of Blackness becomes sounds of crackness); the “black Martha Stewart,” simultaneously connoting cooking, wealth, and criminality; the wonderfully weird image of “cocaine quiches”; the endearing shout-out to his nieces. It might seem ridiculous that a rapper has forged a career essentially talking about one thing, but it’s a lot less ridiculous when he’s this good at it. Here is an annotated list of 10 Pusha T tracks that should give a sense of why My Name Is My Name is one of the most anticipated hip-hop albums of the year.

1) Grindin’,” Clipse, 2002. Any discussion of Pusha T starts with “Grindin’,” the 2002 hit that put him on the map and which boasts perhaps the most audacious beat the Neptunes ever made. Four minutes of rattling, bouncing funk, Clipse’s de facto debut remains one of the best hip-hop tracks of this century.

2) Virginia,” Clipse, 2002. Clipse’s twisted love letter to VA—where there ain’t shit to do but cook—reimagines the Old Dominion as a cocaine-caked hellscape. “Plenty my partners feelin’ like O.J./ Beat murder like the shit is OK,” raps Pusha, with the perfect mix of clever and vile that marked Clipse’s best music. 

3) What Happened to That Boy?” Baby (aka Birdman) ft. Clipse, 2002. Anyone needing evidence that great music and moral decency aren’t always bedfellows should look no further than this ode to killing police snitches, which features a stuttering touchtone of a beat from the Neptunes and a showstopping verse by Push.

4) Ultimate Flow,” Re-Up Gang, 2005. In the mid-2000s Clipse’s mixtape work was the stuff of legend; “Ultimate Flow,” the last track on We Got It 4 Cheap, Vol. 2, jacks the beat from Lil’ Kim’s “Drugs” and features one of Push’s best verses: loose, smart, and disarming. “Mama, I means no harm/ you lack classic charm/ but I ain’t got it either.” What a line.

5) Ride Around Shining,” Clipse ft. Ab-Liva, 2006. Pusha’s work on “Ride Around Shining” is discussed above; this track also features the hardest-sounding string piano in human history.

6) Hello New World,” Clipse, 2006. “I was 16, eyes full of hope/ bagging up grams at the Hyatt doe/ The news called it crack I called it Diet Coke.” Towering Neptunes production and an eerie, off-key Pharrell hook transform this rags-to-riches tale into a dark opera of wealth and loss.

7) Runaway,” Kanye West ft. Pusha T, 2010. Pusha T finally won a pop-star turn with his guest appearance on Kanye West’s “Runaway,” the best song on West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “Runaway” is beautiful, sad, angry, complex, and it’s Pusha’s verse—16 bars of shimmer and swagger—that elevates the track from maudlin to sublime.

8) Exodus 23:1,” Pusha T, 2012. This shattering diss track is speculated to be about Lil Wayne and Drake, which is a little like saying that David Bowie’s “Song for Bob Dylan” is speculated to be about Bob Dylan. A work of supreme confidence, “Exodus” was the fiercest indicator yet that Pusha had fully grown into his solo career.

9) Numbers On The Boards,” Pusha T, 2013. The first single off of My Name Is My Name, released back in April. Produced by Kanye West, anyone shocked by the musical direction of Yeezus in June had clearly missed this gnashing buzzsaw of a beat, all sharpened angles and threatening corners. A stunning combination of futuristic and timeless, anticipation for My Name Is My Name began right here…

10) Nosetalgia,” Pusha T ft. Kendrick Lamar, 2013. …and hit full boil here. Pusha and K.Dot exchange vivid tales of the game over a howling beat provided by VA-based producer Nottz. “Nosetalgia” is a riveting, trans-generational reminder that “real hip-hop” is alive and well in 2013.

Thanks to Pete L’Official, Bethlehem Shoals and Glenda Goodman for their help in breaking down and bagging these selections.

Jack Hamilton is Slate’s pop critic. He is assistant professor of American studies and media studies at the University of Virginia. Follow him on Twitter.

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