“Over time I’ve come to realize that I was trying to be three people at a time. One for me, and one for you, and one for them.”
So Pusha T’s newest release opens with an anguished lyrical admission of an unfocused self, or is it actually a self too manifold to be fit into our current, sequestered rap narratives? As if in answer, Lee Sanchez–of early Clipse fame–busts in: “Who you wanna be, drug dealer? Rap n—-a? You trying to save the culture? You’ve got to pick one.” Instead of acquiescing to this commandment though, Terrence Thornton rolls all three into a holy trinity on Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude. He doesn’t recant his past, he doesn’t forget the defining force that Clipse was, and he’s unafraid to accept a role as guiding force for the unmoored, regionless rap game. But when you’ve got this much ground to cover, arrangement is key. So we get The Prelude as Pusha T organizes his prophecies into parts.
Do people know what prelude means? A prelude, and therefore, Darkest Before Dawn, is a preliminary action to a work of broader scope and higher importance. Given that, the production style’s alignment with the past seems like a logical extension of its precursory function. It’s almost math. King Push remains priority, coming in April, but the purpose of a prelude has always been to give crucial contextual information, marginalia to illuminate primary text. On the cover of Darkest Before Dawn Pusha T is turning away while a white dove, commonly known as a symbol for peace–or the spirit of God–lands on him. Good church-goers will draw clear correlation with the dove that comes down in Matthew 3:16 after the baptism of Jesus; good Pusha fans will draw another metaphor for the winged white bird.
A recent ascent to president of G.O.O.D. music is another acknowledgement of Pusha’s role as an elder statesman in the rap game, as is the way he speaks with incensed rage about the unchecked violence against the black community in America. “You’d rather be more famous than rich,” he sneers on The-Dream hook laden “M.F.T.R” (please decode that acronym for yourself, reader), and this isn’t a commentary on fame or wealth, but on priorities. That’s not the only songs that skewers wealth either, even as Pusha repeatedly pledges allegiance to it. “M.P.A”–sounds like a watered down whiskey version of “Blame Game”‘s hundred-proof self-loathing–it similarly warns of hedonistic emptiness, and lines up those fatal flaws with corresponding punishments on “Crutches, Crosses, Caskets.” Here too, he gives us Pusha pulpit-speak: “I speak to your soul and that’s above money / This the ministry of street energy,” proceeding to namecheck L Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, as a peer. New God flow indeed. More than ever before, he’s here for more than just rhyming, even as that remains the strongest vehicle for his ministry.
An interview with NPR published yesterday is crucial context for understanding Pusha T’s position in the current rap landscape, or hell, even in the current political landscape. He talks about the early days of Clipse, and how he coined the term “Clipse-ter” (proto-hipster) after that infamous Knitting Factory show, the initial, perplexing revelation of an internet audience that existed even when the artists themselves were unaware. He discusses his urge for retribution in an era that reaps young black lives by police sickle and scythe with no apparent end in sight. “I don’t got no march in me / I can’t turn the other cheek,” he growls on “Sunshine,” a song we soon learn is a tribute to his own fallen loved one: “Funeral flowers / Every 28 hours / Being laid over ours.” Later, “They’ll never rewrite this / Like they rewrote history”–new scripture as a necessary corrective. He talks about the brevity of majesty that accompanied so many of the early greats, and wonders why that had to be. He speaks on the terrible truth of being washed: “You can’t hide being washed. Like, that’s a terrible thing.” And who would know that more than Pusha, who veered dangerously close to that territory himself right as he was getting his solo G.O.O.D. sea legs.
Most importantly though, in that interview he delineates what Darkest Before Dawn is: It’s a collection of the songs that would’ve made King Push cumbersome, that clouded the vision of that album. It is not a throwaway end of year label fulfillment, no. Anyone who has listened to it can tell that, because this is a steely sharp statement of purpose from a rapper already known for running on vengeance. I didn’t know I needed to hear Beanie Sigel doing Pusha’s ad-lib until “Keep Dealing,” and now I can’t live without it. That’s what salvation feels like. Kehlani and Jill Scott coming through like destroying angels: “Who are you? We don’t know you,” on “Retribution” and “Patience torn, patience gone, Oh God” on “Sunshine” respectively. These aren’t empty inclusions either, both of these women speak with the same authority as any guest included here.
Part of functioning as a multifarious voice is knowing when to separate out the strands of it so they don’t overtake one another. That’s a critical part of being a powerful artist, too. Organization is a skill that can make or break an operation like the one that Pusha’s trying to run here, a lesson from his kingpin past that more rappers could stand to learn. That’s why he’s been tapped to lead G.O.O.D. music too–the roster needs organization. It needs a shepherd. It needs savior and spirit and omnipresent leader. Bless Kanye, he’s not those things. G.O.O.D. music needs the trinity of King Push, and honestly, so do we. Darkest Before Dawn distills his spiritual rap holiness into a half hour; the ministry of street energy sliced with nearly forgotten deacons like Puff, Tip, Beanie Sigel, and even The-Dream. This is the prelude to the graceful savior and once and future king that renders sunshine irrelevant, and leaves me praying for April’s blue moon to rise.