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Review: Pusha T's Darkest Before Dawn is a skeletal and steely stocking stuffer

Review: Pusha T's Darkest Before Dawn is a skeletal and steely stocking stuffer


G.O.O.D. Music's president is slowing down, but he's still landing punches

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Barring some kind of Christmas miracle — think turkey dinner in the studio with Kim and North manning the boards — Kanye West isn’t releasing a new album this year. Will you accept a stocking stuffer from his musical consigliere? Pusha T’s King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude isn’t a surprise album, but it’s somewhat unexpected: the newly minted G.O.O.D. Music president has been hard at work on King Push since at least 2014. (It’s now scheduled to arrive sometime in the spring.)

To hear Pusha tell it, Darkest Before Dawn came together naturally while he was recording King Push with a murderer’s row of hip-hop veterans. "What we have here is like a compilation of 10 of the hardest records that I’ve compiled… I didn’t want to break up that body of work," said Pusha in a recent interview with Noisey. "I had the producers doing things they weren’t usually known for, and a little bit out of their wheelhouse."

Sure enough, the most interesting part of Darkest Before Dawn is its beats. They’re more jagged and strange than anything on Pusha’s fine 2013 LP My Name Is My Name, a cold and physical album in its own right. He opens Darkest Before Dawn with a bold claim, one that flips the conventional wisdom regarding his career on its head: "The only great I ain’t made better was J Dilla." Pusha’s discography lends itself well to a producer-centric reading. As one half of the Clipse, he and brother (No) Malice were gifted some of the most experimental, playful beats the Neptunes were producing at their peak. When the duo dissolved at the end of the ‘00s, Kanye swooped in and signed Pusha to a solo deal on the label he’s now running, and guest spots on singles like "Runaway" and "Mercy" helped keep him afloat before he managed to put together My Name Is My Name.

What arrangement can't be enriched by a judicious "yeuch?"

Of course, Pusha’s relationship with his producers is more symbiotic than parasitic: he asks for a certain type of beat, picks and prunes until he gets the ones he likes, and draws out their best qualities with his writing and performance. (What arrangement can’t be enriched by a judicious yeuch?) He encouraged Darkest Before Dawn’s cast of all-stars to exercise their meanest impulses, and it pays musical dividends. Puff Daddy and Q-Tip supply brief, skeletal tracks built for straightforward spitting, and Kanye himself trots out to give the album its most tuneful moment, the jingling "M.P.A." Timbaland comes out on top with some of his best work in a decade, a handful of tracks that cover an impressive amount of ground. Lead single "Untouchable" is the kind of thing you’d use to sell people a consumer version of the Batmobile, swooping and gliding over dark Gotham streets. The percussive ping-pong of "Got Em Covered" is one of the weirdest beats Tim’s made since Missy Elliott’s prime; "Retribution" is glittering and icy, defrosted by a sterling Kehlani guest spot.

Pusha's like a boxer telegraphing his punches

Pusha doesn’t have any trouble navigating these off-kilter soundscapes, but something’s slipped in his rapping. He remains one of hip-hop’s best writers, capable of unreeling complex, nested references and sharp one-liners in equal measure. Take "Crutches, Crosses, Caskets," a track that contains both the line "I let Zillow change my pillows" and an extended riff on his mother’s recent Bahamian vacation. (She’s eating swordfish in her pajamas, if you were wondering.) Darkest Before Dawn is full of Pusha’s usual relaxed rumination on wealth, authenticity, and the drug trade, but it also includes some of his most potent, direct social criticism (particularly the searing closer "Sunshine"). The thing is, Pusha knows he’s a great writer, and he loves to show his work. It slows these tracks down, renders them ponderous. He’s like a boxer telegraphing his punches: the blows land, but you can see them coming. And while he’s always rapped like this, he used to do it with more agility.

It’s a minor annoyance, one that doesn’t compromise an album that’s comforting in its predictability. Darkest Before Dawn is concise and consistent on both tonal and thematic levels. Pusha is still rapping about selling drugs and becoming rich as a result of said sale; he’s still trying to bury anyone who dares question his wealth or legitimacy. Hitting play on this album feels like calling your grandfather, ready for a few minutes’ worth of ranting about the government and the local sports teams. The crankiness is practiced and proficient, and King Push will surely offer more of the same.