The cover art for Pusha T’s previous album, My Name is My Name, was an austere barcode, rigid lines and numbers—identifying yet obscuring, unique yet universal. The music followed suit, featuring Pusha simultaneously returning to the coke-peddling state of mind from his early career and bouncing around contemporary rap’s eclectic soundscape. Quite explicitly, that album was an effort to establish who Pusha T was and who he could be, to brand him. Implicitly, it was an acknowledgment of and objection to the fact Pusha T was already branded. According to popular wisdom he was a street rapper who lucked into signing with G.O.O.D. Music, collecting a final check before his long run was over for good. Pusha disagreed, digging deep into his mythos and finding the rush and bitterness that made him compelling as one half of Clipse. On King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude, the show goes on.
Pusha T has found a home in darkness. While there were always cozy pockets of grime in The Neptunes’ spaced-out production, Clipse was ultimately a project of hope. Crosses, prayer hands, and children were recurring images in Clipse videos and it was never a surprise: the Thornton brothers were dopeboys trying to make things right. Darkest Before Dawn goes the opposite route, free-falling down into the gutter, gleeful to see the muck that splashes up. The album is peppered with sinister asides. “I think I paid for one too many abortions,” Pusha snarls on “Keep Dealing.” “My skin is triple black, I’m the omen,” he boasts on “Crutches, Crosses, Caskets.” There’s something theatrical, almost comical, about this full-on embrace of darkness, but even the album’s jokes aim for bleakness. “Niggas ain’t been to church in a minute, but it’s funny how that TEC make a nigga get religious,” The-Dream croons on “M.F.T.R.”
The most interesting moments of the album are when Pusha feels his way around the darkness instead of embracing it so willingly. “Keep Dealing,” the album’s highlight, features Pusha standing on the mountaintop, comparing himself to Andy Warhol and using plastic surgery to mold women into the shapes he prefers. As the verse unwinds, he tumbles down the mountain, his money evaporating as his excess undoes him. But right before he splatters onto the crags below, learning his lesson, surviving and moving on, more money appears, drug money that he had stashed away. “Keep dealing,” he concludes, ascending the mountain again, repeating the cycle. Self-destruction has never sounded so justified, so necessary for survival.
Elsewhere, the justifications are weak. On “M.F.T.R.” Pusha taunts, “They ask why I’m still talking dope: why not?” This is a reasonable response to a longstanding unreasonable request, but there’s an unsettling shrewdness to this answer, a businessman’s cold calculation. This notion of doing-it-just-because-I can also rears its head on the frosty “Untouchable,” where Pusha raps “Ignore most requests for the feature/Unless it’s getting played on the beach in Ibiza.” Lines like this make the album’s darkness feel less like an affect, a hardened worldview, and more like a transaction, edginess on demand, a brand for hire.
Most of the album’s producers are excitably off-brand. Timbaland furnishes his darkest beat since Bjork’s’ “Innocence” on “Got Em Covered,” slamming percussion together until it drips while a mandolin has a seizure in the background; Kanye West and Che Pope toss sharp keys and shrill shakers together for a dour number on “M.P.A.” And Baauer of “Harlem Shake” infamy provides a hollowed-out, screeching funeral march for “Sunshine,” Pusha’s slow-burning fuck-you to 2015’s unceasing stream of state brutality against black bodies. Pusha’s ability to curate such a variety of sounds for such a singular vision is what keeps the album steady, off-kilter but on par.
If My Name is My Name was a branding, an active marketing campaign, Darkest Before Dawn is the fully realized product, Pusha T not as he was or as he could be, but as he is. He’s not always as sharp as he’s been in the past, but he makes up for his faults with his tenacity. My name is my name is King Push, he insists, prolonging the show, refusing to let the curtain fall until everyone has acknowledged his triumph, his ascension. Keep dealing, keep dealing.