Long Live PUSHA-T, King of “High-Taste Level Luxury Drug Raps”

Long Live PUSHA-T, King of “High-Taste Level Luxury Drug Raps”

Yeezus, bro? You don’t even know,” PUSHA-T says to me, laughing, his signature braids swirling around his face. “Seven songs. Yeezus. Those are the two things that Kanye and I fight about the most.”

He pulls out his phone. “I have to,” he laughs. “Bro. I haaaave to.” He’s writing a message to Kanye about our conversation. “I’m telling him that I’m sitting here with someone who not only says Yeezus is his best album, but that the seven songs on my album remind him of it.” I laugh, explaining that’s just how I feel. There’s beauty and energy in the bombastic, punk nature of Kanye’s fifth album—a record that resisted nearly every trend upon its original release five years ago, one that ignored the Kanye tradition of creating a soulful sonic bath and rather felt more like a punch straight to the gut before taking another to the nose. We’re talking about this in context of how PUSHA-T’s album came to be just seven songs—and the tension between Kanye and PUSHA-T was used to create it.

“Twenty songs on albums these days,” he says. “We’re going for seven.”

The seven songs form his new album DAYTONA, the much-hyped third solo album from the former Clipse member, which we’re meant to believe is the long-awaited King Push, a record he’s been teasing for years. The last time I’d spoken with PUSHA-T, he’d just announced 2015’s Darkest Before Dawn, suggesting that it was a prelude for King Push, a teaser for something much bigger, stranger, better. Over the last three years, he’d spoken about the process of recording the album—how it’d gotten dumped three times, specifically—only for the world to eventually be told, through a Kanye West tweet, that it was coming on May 25. It’s safe to say that, given Kanye’s track record for not being able to hit deadlines, we were all skeptical the release would actually happen, but here we are, the project is out, and it’s being devoured by the world. King Push is now called DAYTONA, a 21-minute album completely produced by Kanye West, the first project to come out of the Wyoming Sessions. It’s the best solo project of PUSHA-T’s career.

“This is the must have rap album in your discography. I’m not playing by any of the rules that anyone is playing.” —PUSHA-T

“This is the quintessential rap album,” the 41-year-old says two days before DAYTONA’s release. We’re having lunch at Blue Ribbon Sushi Izakaya on New York’s Lower East Side. “This is the must have rap album in your discography. I’m not playing by any of the rules that anyone is playing.”

He’s right. Throughout his career, PUSHA-T has been one of the most consistent rappers in the game. His distinct flow and wordplay helped revolutionize the genre. As one half of Clipse, he and his brother created Lord Willin’ and Hell Hath No Fury, two revolutionary rap albums that have shaped the genre as we know it today. From then, he’s gone on to have a prolific solo career, releasing two critically acclaimed records in My Name Is My Name and The Darkest Before Dawn among an assortment of mixtapes. His verse on “Runaway” is one of the most memorable rap verses of the past decade. To put it another way, PUSHA-T is the definition of your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper.

But anyway, about those seven songs?

“I have to admit that seven songs was the right move,” he says, referencing his arguments with Kanye before pulling out his phone to show me something else: a bullet list of reasons he used to explain to Kanye why seven songs is a bad idea. He shows me briefly, but on the list, I’m able to note XXXTentatcion’s name in reference to streaming numbers. That’s the only detail I catch, but it’s among paragraphs and paragraphs of point after point after point. I can’t help but think this is a prime example of the working relationship that Kanye and Push have, unafraid to challenge and push one another in the pursuit of perfection. These guys are brothers. “Just so you understand, this is my beef,” he taps his finger on the table between us to make his point, something he’ll do multiple times throughout our conversation. “It goes deep.”

I ask him how Kanye got him to change his mind.

“I was in Calabasas, and he was like, ‘What do you think about seven songs?’ And I was like, ‘Absolutely not.’ He was like, ‘I want you to go home and think about it. Really think about seven. I got ‘em in my head.’ Then he tells me something like; ‘Man, I’m just really big on seven right now.’ And I’m like, man, that is not a reason.”

At this point, Push is laughing (he laughs a lot). His description of going back and forth with Kanye sounds like anyone would describe a conversation with a frustrating loved one or family member. Later, he’ll explain to me that it’s this dynamic that allows him to move as the President of G.O.O.D. Music. He says he doesn’t filter himself, and understands what it’s like to work with someone on the level of Kanye West.

I ask him, again, how Kanye got him change his mind.

“I went back the next day, and he was like, ‘Ride with me, man.’ And when he says that, I usually ride. How it goes is, you say what you think, but if he’s adamant, I’m gonna really rock.”

I ask him to explain that further, but he won’t expand. Sibling shit.

“I have to admit that seven songs was the right move. But Yeezus,” he laughs, pointing at me with his fork, “we still battle.”

In conversation, Push is very present. For being one of the greatest rappers to ever do it, his energy very affable and doesn’t seem to be too concerned with the fact that he’s one of the greatest rappers to ever do it. He once described himself to me as “regular famous,” and that’s still reflected in how he moves. In the times I’ve been around him over the years, he’s typically punctual (for a rapper); he politely answers questions thoughtfully. It’s a bit funny to think about this in comparison to his rap persona—one that’s built on drug storytelling about Rocky Mountain sized piles of cocaine. Push has elevated the genre of drug rap into a different sphere, tackling complexities of both crime (“Choppas in the Closet”) and the effects of addiction (“Nosetalgia”).

The latter might help explain the reasoning behind DAYTONA’s cover, a tabloid photograph of Whitney Houston’s bathroom circa 2006. The album art was publicly announced literally minutes after PUSHA-T left my interview so I was unable to ask him any questions about it, but where he was heading—Power 105.1’s Angie Martinez—is where he’d explain himself: Kanye apparently had called him the night before at 1 AM and said, “This is what people need to see to go along with the music.” ‘Ye then paid $85,000 to license the photo. The public response seems to be divided on whether or not the use of the photograph is provocative or exploitive. Another situation of Kanye asking Push to ride with him?

DAYTONA album art

Controversial art aside, the story of its inclusion aligns with the entire process of how the album came together. According to Push, earlier this year, the project was finished at about 14 songs or so. Then one day about a month or so ago (Push wouldn’t get too specific with timelines), he and Kanye were driving around while listening to it, and Kanye wanted to switch everything up.

“I was like, man, this is my album. This is what I love,” he says about the former finished product. “Next day, I come over, and he’s like, ‘Man, I think I could produce these songs way better.’ And I’m like, yeah, sure. Enhance the drums. Whatever. And he’s like, ‘No, I think I can produce them. Let’s go to Utah.’ And I’m like… ‘Utah? I don’t want to go to Utah, bro.’” (Later, he’ll tell me how much he hates being outdoors. “Animals? No.”)

He continues to eat, stabbing his sushi with a fork, seeming both frustrated and thankful with that being the process of how the album came together. His attitude, it should be noted, never lacks confidence.

“Mind you, at this time, he’s not necessarily producing like that, either,” he says. “He’s going through shit. He’s in the news. And I’m like, OK, you want to go to Utah? You want to produce? Let’s go to Utah. Utah turns into Wyoming. One week turns into three weeks. Like a week of listening to only samples. But we found an energy that we haven’t had in years.” He said he’s been back three times, most recently just last week. He’s said in other interviews this week that Kanye’s still there, working to finish more projects.

DAYTONA’s seven songs are some of the sharpest songwriting of PUSHA-T’s career. Given the length, each moment of the album carries so much purpose, showcasing his unmatched skills as a lyricist and Kanye’s best production in years. On opening “If You Know You Know,” Push dances around everything we know him for—dealing crack and cocaine and letting everyone know that they are not as good at dealing crack and cocaine as him. Kanye bounces on the MPC, feeling a bit more like one of the duo’s best musical moments in “Runaway.” Later, in “Come Back Baby,” Push shows his ability to float above Kanye’s signature soul sample beats. Earlier, with “The Games We Play,” he compares DAYTONA to Raekwon’s The Purple Tape, delivering a verse that could act as a statement for his career over heavy, syrupy beats:

Ain’t no stoppin’ this champagne from poppin’
The draws from droppin’, the law from watchin’
With Ye back choppin’, the cars and the women come with options
Caviar facials remove the toxins
This ain’t for the conscious, this is for the mud-made monsters
Who grew up on legends from outer Yonkers
Influenced by niggas Straight Outta Compton, the scale never lies
I’m 2.2 incentivised
If you ain’t energized like the bunny for drug money
Or been paralyzed by the sight of a drug mummy
This ain’t really for you, this is for the Goya Montoya
Who said I couldn’t stop, then afforded me all the lawyers
The only kingpin who ain’t sinkin’
Chess moves, that means my third eye ain’t blinkin’
Stay woke, nigga, or get out
Still pull them whips out, still spread the chips out
Might buy your bitch some new hips and yank her rib out
The message in this music, all my niggas had to live out

“I said every possible thing I wanted to say,” he tells me. “It feels current. The energy of it is a total disruption when it comes to music. I don’t know what else is out there like this right now. High taste level luxury drug raps. I don’t know who is doing it like that. I don’t know who is doing production to the level that this guy is doing. I’m not saying it’s the biggest or most grandiose albums, but it’s the purest that you can get.”

Moreover, there’s a song that’s been making headlines even before the release: “Infrared.” On it, Push comes for Drake—and along with Drizzy, Baby and Lil Wayne. There’s a Quentin Miller line and another comment about ghostwriting, but then goes in on Young Money’s profiteering of its artists: “He see what I see when you see Wayne on tour / Flash without the fire /Another multi-platinum rapper trapped and can’t retire / Niggas get exposed, I see the cracks and I’m the liar?”

At this stage, it might feel trite to continue this beef—especially when calling out Drake for ghostwriting, a fact that’s seem to have little to no effect on the commercial success of Drake’s career—but this is Push’s role in the world of rap music. He might not be a single-charting success story, but he’s quietly in the corner, measuring up what the game needs and deserves at any given moment, watching how the rest of the world moves. When I ask him about this song in particular, his response is just as plainspoken and simple: “It’s in response to ‘Two Birds, One Stone.’ I heard it,” he says, flatly. “And that was that man’s truth, and he was speaking his truth in his songs, so I do the same. I speak the truth in mine. That’s all it is. That’s really what it is.” And that, he says, is all he has to say about that.

The energy on the DAYTONA is youthful, but comes from a lens of experience. It’s not lost on the rapper that he’s now 41 years old, and operating in a world where Lil Pump is negotiating multi-million dollar deals at the age of 17. (Unrelated but related: at one point during our conversation, Push raps “Gucci gang Gucci gang” over and over again to help make a point.) He says he views staying relevant as part of his job, and that the size of the genre of rap, at this point, is something that he’d never thought he’d see.

“Rap is music. It is the most entertaining thing in the world to watch,” he says. “I feel like we’re the elders that are going to get it right. Everybody who I loved coming up, I feel like those guys’ lifespan was so short because they never embraced the youth. I don’t judge the youth by the same criteria. Hip-hop culture isn’t just about having fresh raps. Look, for me, I wanted to rap like Rakim. I wanted to dress like Run DMC and Doug E. Fresh. I wanted to cut my hair like Kane. I used to go to New York and specifically go get with my cousins who lived in the south Bronx, so I could learn how to dress a certain way. That’s rap. That’s rap, bro.”

He continues: “You can sit on the sidelines and critique all day, but if you’re still going outside, how the fuck can’t you like Lil Baby, or Gunna? Like, how? How the fuck? Like, how how? Because if you can’t, then I can’t really talk to you, because you’re closing something up that’s not gonna make for us to even have a real conversation. I’m a firm believer that you can appreciate anything that you get to see the inner workings of if you understand it.”

It’s this approach that, he believes, allows him to be successful as the President of G.O.O.D. Music. He says he’s always looking for what’s next, who to sign, where to take the projects, and how to position the brand for the future. I ask him how the last month—in which Kanye West has been posting photos on the internet of himself wearing a MAGA hat—has been. He describes it as the “Kanye West roller coaster ride.”

“Everyone wants to ask me about this stuff, and it’s not biggie. As the president of G.O.O.D. Music, it’s a distraction for me,” he says. “I have a Teyana Taylor album that is so fire. It is so fire. I’m talkin’ bout, bro, it is so fire. But because his shit has been so loud—hence the reason why we are talking about my album now—nothing is going to trump that. No pun intended.” He laughs before continuing: “Being the president of G.O.O.D. Music has been good in the sense of learning how to work in a chaotic dynamic. When you get on that shit, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Because it was all good like three weeks ago. I ain’t seen no hat.”

But what does he think of the hat?

“I said, hey man, that’s the new Klan hood,” he tells me firmly. “And he’s like, ‘This is a hat man, we can’t be trapped by the thought…’ And I’m like, alright bro.”

West produced all of DAYTONA, but he’s also one of the project’s featured verses (the other being Rick Ross) on “What Would Meek Do?.” And on that verse, which he opens with the now infamous “poop scoop” line, the hat comes up again: “If you ain’t drivin’ while Black, do they stop you?” Kanye spits. “Will MAGA hats let me slide like a drive-thru?”

“I talk to him all the time about, bro, the messaging, the sensitivity.” Push says. I tell him that I think that line is the clearest he’s delivered the message of what he’s been trying to say, although it’s still a stretch. Push agrees, and then explains some more. “First of all, you have to know that he’s totally having fun with the poopity-scoop shit. It’s the most legendary troll ever. Because “Lift Yourself” beat is so fire. It is so fire. To do that on that beat has to show you his confidence and the level that’s he’s on.” He then adopts a screeching Kanye voice: “I’ll do this my way. I do this all day! Here you go!” He laughs as he pounds the table.

“I said, hey man, that [hat] the new Klan hood. And he’s like, ‘This is a hat man, we can’t be trapped by the thought…’ And I’m like, alright bro.” —PUSHA-T

“[Kanye] was like, man, our album is coming out and this is the first time they’ve heard me since “Lift Yourself,” he says. “What if I just start it off like that? Poop! Scoop! And they’ll understand that I’m pissing on them. And I was like, go.” He pauses, making sure to articulate the next point correctly. “This shit is in real time, man. This album is in real time. We’re talking about real shit. You’re seeing shit, hearing shit. He’s reacting to things, tweeting things. But it’s all right here. That’s going to be a big thing for the project, for people to understand. You’re getting it raw from us.”

He can’t help but seem a bit annoyed, though. Both annoyed and concerned for his friend: “With everything going on with him right now, there couldn’t be a better palette cleanser than all this music,” he says. “I hope all these projects come out and he goes on a wild crusade, messaging properly.”

As our time together comes to a close, I ask him how he wants this album—and the string of albums from G.O.O.D. Music over the next month—to be remembered. “First and foremost, I want people to understand there’s a heightened production sound from what we’re doing,” he says. “This is the album version of G.O.O.D. Fridays.”

“Secondly, my objective is to have the best album out of all of them,” he says, laughing, then bounces away, shouting back at me. “Nobody excluded!”

I smile. We both know who he’s talking about.

Eric Sundermann is the editor-in-chief of Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.

Matt Seger is a photographer based in New York City. Follow him on Instagram.