hipsters, felons, and thugs
Moments before his scheduled performance at a launch party in SoHo for the release of his new line of sneakers—milky white Adidas crafted from Italian leather and carp scales—Pusha T learns that thousands of protesters are marching in the streets of Manhattan that night to demand justice for Eric Garner. Moments after this revelation, someone announces his name, a crowd screams, and he jumps on stage, still processing.
Almost a month earlier, on November 24, the planned date of the rollout of Pusha’s sneakers, the Mike Brown verdict came out. Upset, hurt, and in disbelief, Pusha postponed the rollout, calling for artists to speak out against such injustices. But now, onstage before a crowd of people who wanted to see him perform, who paid to see him perform, Pusha is torn. He explains to the crowd that if he had known the protests were happening that night, he wouldn’t have performed. He expresses his condolences for the families of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and Akai Gurley. The falter in his usual braggadocio betrays the turmoil between his work and his ethics and raises the question of which of these loyalties will come out on top. In the end, he chooses both. He performs “Lunch Money,” rapping into the cameras: “America’s still abusing us / 9/11 is the Ku Klux / Why wouldn’t I fire back, when every day them n****s shooting us.”
At 36-years-old, Pusha raps with the raw hunger of someone half his age. He explodes best on sparse, sinister beats—from the Spartan woodblock of “Grindin’” to Pharrell’s scampering metallic 808s on “Suicide”—where his cold delivery takes over, escalating in menace without Pusha ever needing to raise his voice.
Pusha writes all his lyrics on paper. He needs to see his words in ink, scribbling in the margins until he decides on a clean copy to bring into the recording studio. But the paper’s just for comfort; Pusha never needs to look over his lyrics after he’s written them, because he says them so often and means them so much that he couldn’t possibly forget. Nine of Pusha’s friends are in jail, indicted in a drug ring in 2009. They call him often to tell him they hear his tracks. They say they never want to see him complacent, and neither does he.
Pusha T, née Terrence Thornton, has come a long way from the Bronx. His family moved from New York to Norfolk, Virginia when Terrence turned two. With his dad working at a steelyard, the family just barely got by. When he was young, Terrence cried often, out of desire for things that would help him fit in, things his parents couldn’t afford. Most notable among these was a pair of shoes: Air Force Ones with the strap that hung off the back. The potential spoils of drug-dealing bewitched both him and his brother. Terrence tried to work any job he could get, even telemarketing, so that his parents wouldn’t ask where the money came from. One day, after a scuffle with someone who owed him money, the 15-year-old Terrence came home to see cops swarming his front yard: the guy had fired shots at his parent’s home.
But hip-hop hit Norfolk just as hard as the drugs. At thirteen, Terrence and his friend Pharrell would get together and record with the local hip-hop guy in Virginia Beach, Timbaland. Terrence formed the rap duo Clipse with his brother, Gene “No Malice” Thornton. Clipse delivered coke rap cut straight from the streets of their hometown. Their second record, “Grindin’” took Clipse on the road in bullet-proof vests touring for local drug dealers across America. After releasing their acclaimed third album Hell Hath No Fury, Clipse disbanded so the brothers could pursue solo projects.
Now, Pusha T unabashedly misses cocaine (he titled a song off his most recent album “Nosetalgia”). Rick Ross makes frequent cameos on his overtly drug-fueled tracks, notably “I Still Wanna.” If the title’s implication doesn’t speak kilos, Pusha raps, “Sleeping with the finest, the thread count is bindless / Security blanket of cocaine, I am Linus.”
That Pusha T raps so much about dealing coke speaks to an almost Kierkegaardian thirst for the street authenticity that has dissolved in much of today’s hip-hop scene, with artists emerging from Canadian sitcoms or claiming to have dealt only to sell more records. In the track “Hold On” (coincidentally co-produced by Hudson Mohawke) from his debut studio album, My Name Is My Name, Pusha T raps against this bad faith: “I sold more dope than I sold records / You n****s sold records, never sold dope / So I ain’t hearing none of that street shit / Cause in my mind you motha****s sold soap.”
Though he refuses to abandon the streets, Pusha certainly moves with the big dogs. Kanye West produced My Name is My Name and even held a listening party for the album release where he hyped Pusha in one of his infamous monologues. Kanye loves Pusha T almost as much as Kanye hates corporations, and this most likely stems from Pusha’s unrelenting authenticity.
Pusha’s stripped-down beats set the stage for his pristine articulation. His flow oozes Biggie, quietly vicious lyricism that transcends punchlines. Pusha T buttresses his cocaine rep with a belletristic flurry of allusions to and euphemisms for the drug: snow, keys, fishscale, triple beam, birds. It’s safe to say all the vernacular ever coined for coke are buried somewhere in one of his songs. His lyrics are elusive poetry that recall Wu-Tang, simultaneously applauding and concealing Pusha’s past in a dazzling blur of person and persona.
But despite his nostalgia for his cocaine cowboy-dom, Pusha doesn’t glorify the streets; he tells the whole story, the highs and lows of dealing. It’s this double consciousness that makes Pusha’s rap so compelling. He has one hand in the spoils of dealing and another in the grit of reality. He says he strives for consciousness in his rap, to enlighten his listeners to the only truth he knows, whether that concerns cocaine or what it means to be a black man in America. This is the eloquence that holds up Pusha’s audience. As he rapped in “Trouble On My Mind,” “I’m the only one who can mix the hipsters with felons and thugs.” Assuming that at least one of those three groups will be present in the audience at Spring Weekend, they will fall, mesmerized, right into Pusha’s powdery white spell.