I’ve never sympathized with the critics of Pusha T who seem to yearn for him to write about something other than the drug trade. I suppose that’s because I’ve never been fond of the approach some rappers take where you can sense the blueprint of every song on an album (“this one’s for the ladies”, “this one’s for the radio”). We’ve also got more emo rappers running around than one can shake a stick at, so I don’t mind the contrast in the present day. That being said, King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude, the surprise precursor to the anticipated King Push finds Pusha Ton in a slightly more reflective space, setting the pistol and the Pyrex aside for a few bars to give us some political views and other more thoughtful fare. Don’t get me wrong, though – the bravado we appreciate from Pusha T is still there.
Lyrically, though I don’t think G.O.O.D. Music will ever give us the hard-hitting, street-sweeping bars we used to get from Re-Up Gang-era Pusha T, the prowess is still unquestionable. The best thing about Pusha T is that he’s never felt the need to dumb his skill level down to assuage the pop leanings of today’s younger rap audiences. Unfortunately, it’s the underlying production where I find the album’s most tragic flaws. While there aren’t any outright bad songs on DBD, there’s a sleekness to the album as a whole that left me wanting more – a slipperiness that kept some songs from truly sticking to the ribs.
Beanie Sigel is in top form with the gritty drug talk on “Keep Dealing”: “C.O.D., niggas never had to front me jawns / I’m weighing bricks on the scale they put the lunchmeat on”. Unfortunately, some of the other guests on the album don’t contribute much. Re-Up Gang cohort and personal favorite Ab Liva pops up on “Got ‘Em Covered”, a quirky, busy Timbaland creation which grows tiresome before you can even get to Liva’s verse, which seemed too short. Timbaland does infinitely better on the moody “Untouchable”, where a vocal loop from Biggie adds weight to one of the better performances on the album.
The-Dream unnecessarily appears on two songs, sounding oddly like the artists his style of R&B paved the way for (namely, Future, who I would have actually preferred if we’re comparing evils). While The-Dream obviously has greater vocal chops than Future, who can tell when said vocals are covered in layers of artificial assistance? It tends to sap the soul right out of a song. Similarly, the latest product of the “sing like a depressed robot” trend of R&B, Kehlani, appears on “Retribution” sounding as generic as ever. I’ll be glad when this vocal trend is over, but it’s too bad that otherwise good songs on this particular album had to fall victim to it. Hey, at least Chris Brown was kind enough to sit this one out as a guest. Luckily, Push wisely tapped Jill Scott to channel Nina Simone for “Sunshine”, where Pusha compares the funds being spent on metal detectors for inner city schools vs. the same funds being spent on laptops for “the county kids”. This song is where the album truly shines, where the sung vocals actually add to the song as opposed to just serving as a break between verses. Also, it’s where Pusha proves there’s a conscience and a consciousness beneath all of the drug lingo.
Ultimately, the quality is there both in production and mic skills to set this album atop the list of better projects of 2015, even though this year was rather lackluster to me in terms of rap music. The lack of competition, however, takes nothing away from Pusha T’s latest effort. While Kanye’s fascination with electronic music is all too prevalent on this album for my taste, Pusha manages to keep it hip-hop in terms of his attention to hard-hitting punchlines and effortless wordplay while his contemporaries dabble in singing and therapist-couch raps. While I could have used a lot more boom-bap to speak to my inner African drum circle, I can say that Darkest Before Dawn is a very “now” album without me having to totally ignore vapid, uninspired lyrics just to have something to drive around to. Hopefully, King Push provides a little something more for the culture in terms of sound, but this project was billed as a prelude, so I’m hoping that it’s only a fraction of what’s to come as opposed to more of the same.