For an artist who began touring in his teens with Kelis, went gold on the US charts not long after and is signed with Kanye West, Pusha T has approached his solo ventures with the vigour of a fresh-faced rapper straight off the mixtape scene. This hunger for “competing with the best of the best” has driven him to release two future-classic mixtapes (Fear of God, Wrath of Cain) and his acclaimed solo debut proper, My Name is My Name. Even after the end-of-2013 ‘best album’ plaudits piled up he continues to strive for more.
When we caught up with the Virginia rhyme slinger, born Terrence Thornton, he was ploughing through the snow apocalypse that had taken over the East Coast of the US, as if it was a metaphor for his powder-laced past. Pusha is en route to New York, on the next stretch of his tour with 2 Chainz. While revered as a pure lyricist, he is now sharing the same mainstream arena as his outlandish Atlanta cohort, working to fine-tune the balance of credibility and mainstream appeal he has worked towards since his days as one-half of Clipse. Growing into his role as a soloist and more aware of his all-star qualities, he is swinging for the fences as he prepares his upcoming second album King Push. “The album is going to have a very triumphant feel,” he tells us. “The title alone is like my proclamation to being great. Great at what it is I do, and that’s lyric-driven hip-hop.” With a marked refocus on lyrical quality and individuality in the mainstream, from Kendrick Lamar to Action Bronson, Pusha believes the time is right for an artist like him. “I feel like the host of albums that came out before and after mine are setting the trend for lyricism to be a big part of hip-hop again.” Going as far as to state that he feels he “stunted his growth” on his previous solo effort, he believes an artist in his position needed to play possum before going for the kill. “I feel like My Name is My Name proved everything it was supposed to but now I’m finally going to fall into my greatness.”
Poised for greatness from almost the beginning, Pusha and real-life brother Gene ‘Malice’ Thornton were discovered in their teens by now-industry titan Pharrell Williams. The Neptunes producer, who himself was still looking to make his major mark, helped them sign their first deal with Elektra Records in 1997. While the label association would eventually go sour, including the recording of a shelved album in Exclusive Audio Footage, in 2002 they would go on to hit the hip-hop scene like an atomic bomb with Lord Willin’. Combining their sophisticated rhyme patterns and natural charisma with Neptunes beats, the Clipse topped both the R&B/Hip-Hop and Hot 200 charts in the US. Seeing more than its fair share of trappers-turned-rappers since their emergence, the duo is now revered as a pioneering force on the hip-hop landscape. While at the time they would go underappreciated by industry types, every subsequent Clipse release would be met with feverish anticipation by those in the know. They would release two other acclaimed albums and several side-projects, including the heralded We Got it 4 Cheap mixtape series, before going their separate ways in 2011. The renamed No Malice went on a new path as a devout Christian and released the solo effort Hear Ye Him, while Pusha looked to build on his legacy, signing a solo deal through Kanye West’s GOOD Music imprint.
Making the transition appear easy on the surface, the revered MC reveals it was not so simple. “I had fans that didn’t want to hear me without my brother and there are fans right now that don’t want to hear me without my brother.” The crossover into solo artist had an effect not only on fans but on Pusha himself and his role as an artist. “There was the comfort zone of having my brother with me on a stage or on a track. It made my job a lot easier and I recognised that once I went solo.” Being thrown in the deep-end forced him to refine his artistic approach and find his voice, ultimately preparing him for working on a grander scale. “I know there’s a role I played and I try to take on both roles now by thinking in a 360 degree perspective. I felt like I was more of the brash one in the group, my brother was more introspective.” Rather than shunning his past or starting from scratch, Push has taken it upon himself to try and fuse the styles he and his brother created when embarking on his solo work. “You’ll hear some of that on records like 40 Acres or King Push. That was me trying to take on some of what my brother brought to the table.” Garnering widespread acceptance for his solo work, he has since made it his mission to win over any doubters. Having heavy hitters like Kanye in his corner certainly didn’t hurt, and the experiences have helped mold him into the evolved artist he is now. “The biggest thing that changed for me was patience. I’m not going to rush any of these records.” With all of these lessons learned, the astute Pusha is channeling everything into his forthcoming release. “I’m going to tour and I’m going to organically and meticulously comb through all of my options to create the best album I can with King Push. The name says too much, I have to live up to it and I’m going to do that.”
As has been widely reported by the media and overjoyed fans, Pusha has been hitting the studio with Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, going over the stylistic and musical directions King Push could take. Before people get too excited over a full-blown Pusha T and Neptunes reunion album, he is said to be going over beat selections from other producers as well and has also been speaking with his label boss in regard to the direction of the album. Pusha however assures us that the album will be all him and the overall vision will not be swayed by those who come on board to contribute. “With MNIMN I went out and did everything I wanted to do and brought it to him [Kanye]. And from there he took that from me and made it even better.” This point of view is different from that of some critics who believed that Kanye’s fingerprints were a little too strong on MNIMN, including an article on Hip Hop DX titled ‘Pushed Aside: How Kanye West Failed Pusha T as an Executive Producer’. The piece cited a “lack of synergy between Kanye’s influence and Pusha’s obstinate, iconic style,” which they believe resulted in an underwhelming album. Speaking with Pusha about this and other such critiques he was quick to defend the fact that the project was 100 percent his, saying West’s only major influence was on the album artwork and contributions to the overall aesthetic. “I brought him seven records and he brought me five records that he thought I would sound amazing on. So Kanye West executive produced my album. If it wasn’t to your liking maybe they just didn’t like it. But at the end of the year MNIMN was on everybody’s End of Year list.” He ended the subject emphatically, saying “I think we did a damn job… we killed it actually.”
The added pressure of striking out on his own is one of the many dynamics that has changed since he first began to make his mark with Clipse. The era of Lord Willin’ was one where record labels wielded the power and dictated the direction and marketing of an album, before online guerilla marketing and social media became dominant forces. The fact that Pusha reports to the artistically inclined Kanye West, through his joint venture with Def Jam Records, and has built a level of credibility allows him the creative control needed to release his unfiltered tales. “Labels to me are just houses for putting out music in the corporate sense. I don’t have a big radio marketing plan. I do my own little touring, it’s not because of the label. They give me a platform to reach more people through the brand of Def Jam but other than that they don’t really get in my way creatively, they let it go.”
As loud as the anticipation for King Push has grown, particularly with the Chad and Pharrell dynamic added, the chatter of a Clipse reunion will always be present whenever Pusha T or No Malice are mentioned. Rumours were sparked last year when Pusha mentioned the interest being shown in a reunion album from Kanye and Pharrell. As far as things stand for him right now however the project will not be coming any time soon. “It hasn’t materialised yet. We speak about it but it’s not that time, if I have to give you a definitive answer. It’s obviously something that’s spoken about on a lot of different levels, from Kanye to Pharrell to different labels to me and my brother. I would like to see it come true but I’ll just sit back and wait on it.” The fact that both have chosen their own personal and creative directions since their last recorded group project will certainly make for an intriguing listen, if and when it happens. Although he’s unsure on a timeline, Pusha is positive the resulting album would match the high standards they have previously set. “My brother and I can always accomplish greatness, there’s nothing I can’t do with my brother.”
Forging ahead and with his confidence as a solo artist at a high, Push is ready to conquer the world stage. Like the seasoned artist he is, Pusha is continuing to strive for the best and is confident his audience will follow. “My fan is a very mixed, diverse fan. I do have fans that are hip to the whole Clipse thing. There’s a section in my show where I go back to some Clipse stuff and then I start with my solo stuff and I can tell by the reaction sometimes that the younger kids haven’t been put up on the older stuff yet.” As soon as his solo work comes on though, both new and longtime fans can all get down in unison. “When the new stuff comes on everyone knows it.”
This feature is taken from our upcoming issue, ACCLAIM 32 – The ‘Team Player’ Issue.
On shelves Monday, April 14th.