The Virginia powerhouse's latest sneaks in as one of the year's strongest hip-hop records
The number of rappers who’ve been able to maintain a critical and commercial buzz beyond one hyped album is surprisingly titchy. In October 2013, US hipster-hop mag Complex put together a list of MCs who’d managed objectively successful five-year runs within the 40-year-old genre, and came up with just 20 names, nearly all of which were big: Tupac (1992-1996), The Notorious B.I.G. (1993-1997), Kanye West (2007-2011) and Drake (2009-2013). It’s a cut-throat game, one in which being outshone by a guest-spot on your own track is enough to get you demoted from blazingly hot to shamefully not.
Which makes 38-year-old Virginia native Pusha T (real name Terrence Thornton) something of an outlier. First catching hip-hop’s collective ear as one half of The Clipse on the 2002 hit ‘Grindin”, Pusha T has hardly put a foot wrong since, staying relevant by ignoring prevailing trends, never succumbing to nostalgia, and continually honing that world-class flow: calm yet vicious, minimal yet intricate.
The clunkily titled ‘King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude’ is intended as a stop-gap, before ‘King Push’ – the ‘official’ follow-up to 2013’s acclaimed ‘My Name Is My Name’ – is released in April 2016. It collects together tracks Pusha considered too out-there for the more commercially-minded ‘King Push’, and features big-deal beatmakers such as Kanye, Timbaland and Puffy going deeper, bleaker and weirder than they might usually. ‘Darkest Before Dawn…’ is by no means a cynical exercise in squeezing a few dollars out of B-list studio off-cuts, however – it’s as cohesive, bracing and head-swimmingly thrilling as any hip-hop release of 2015.
Opening track ‘Untouchable’ sets the tone: over a chilling, broken beat, Pusha lays out his position as a nothing-to-prove veteran capable of out-thinking artists half his age: “Yeeugh, I drops every blue moon/To separate myself from you kings of YouTube”. The hook is derived from a sample of Notorious B.I.G.’s verse on New York rapper Pudgee’s 1995 single ‘Think Big’. Going verse-to-chorus with The Greatest Rapper Of All Time takes serious belief in your own abilities, but over a succinct 10 tracks (clocking in at just 33 minutes) Pusha proves himself worthy of the implied comparison – not a syllable goes wasted, no brag feels undercooked, and when a beat needs space to breathe, Pusha allows it just that. Belying its also-ran billing, ‘Darkest Before Dawn…’ is a minor masterpiece of dark, smart, modern hip-hop.