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“This is my time, this is my hour/This is my pain, this is my name, this is my power,” raps Pusha T on one of his greatest, teeth-snarling, punch-you-in-your-face records, King Push. His time off wax is strangely early as fuck. It’s 10:20 a.m. and the rapper is chipper. Just hours earlier, he was at the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg screening his short film, Darkest Before Dawn, followed by dinner at Beauty & Essex in the Lower East Side, and then a club appearance at Up & Down with cool kid Virgil Abloh. I was in bed by midnight and my voice is still heavy with sleep. “C’mon man,” he laughs at my hoarse croak. “I’m up from usually like, six in the morning. So, if I could do [interviews] at six, I’d do it at six and be done by eight. I could still go to the gym and you know, go on with my day. I don’t know why.”
The 38-year-old’s work ethic isn’t a reflection of his new post as President of G.O.O.D. Music. It harkens back to 2002, when he was one-half of the Clipse, working with Pharrell Williams and the Neptunes. “This is how I learned. [By midnight], we’d be out of there to go to the club to hear what was going on and see who the competition was, musically or whatever. The next day, we’d go back in the studio like, ‘Oh man. ‘Grindin’ has to sound better than ‘[It’s All About] The Benjamins.’”
Born Terrence Thornton, the Bronx native and Virginia-raised rapper has straddled the line between embracing hip-hop’s zeitgeist and staying true to his comfort zone. It’s a tenuous balancing act — remaining relevant without selling out to trends — but it’s his aim on his second solo album King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude, to be released December 18. “This album is the polar opposite of everything [fans] are being bombarded with, in the climate of music. It’s a weird space for me, because I love everything that’s going on in music. I’m totally 100% hip to everything new, what’s going on in the clubs. I enjoy it,” he says. “But it’s made me see that there’s a lane in which, I like, mastered that nobody does. I don’t think there’s any artist that does what I do — at all.”
King Push is a darker, more sinister project than its predecessor, 2013’s incredible My Name Is My Name. The single “Crutches, Crosses, Caskets” is a salvo to the sad fuckboys of rap. “Rappers is victimized at an all-time high/But not I, you pop n****s thought I let it fly,” he raps over a moody beat courtesy of Diddy, Mario Winans, Ke’noe and Da Honorable C.N.O.T.E.
Life experience buoys his confidence. “You have to live through a time. Live through things. That level of authenticity has to be there and at the same time, you have to be articulate. It’s just a perspective you can’t learn.” With Clipse, Pusha and brother Malice (now, No Malice) wove intricate tales of coke rap over incredible beats by the Neptunes that transcended region and race. (I first got put onto to Hell Hath No Fury and Lord Willin’ at white frat parties at the University of Michigan.) As a solo artist, Pusha has found a sonic and creative home with Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music. He’s the lyrical ninja the cadre needs, murdering bars on tracks like “Mercy” and “Don’t Like,” and he fits into Kanye’s avant-garde aesthetic. Pusha’s just as at home in Air Jordans as he is hobnobbing at Art Basel: “It’s from being from a different era but embracing all of the newness.”
Few veterans respect Auto-Tuned, weirdo millennial rap, but Pusha knows adaptability is survival. “That’s the biggest thing about all my rap superheroes. That’s the one thing they didn’t do, because their windows were so short,” he says. “My rap superheroes weren’t 38 doing this. No way. From 2002 to 2015, I’m through the B.I.G. era, then the whole Southern wave — two different levels — from Tip to Future. Man, to stay relevant through it all, that’s the attributes of somebody who’s like really out here connecting with the people.”
With year-end lists being tabulated, Pusha has a veritable shot at a top five rap album with King Push — and he knows it. “Lyrically, I think I got it,” he says. “If you got Kendrick [Lamar] making a conceptual album that was more socially-driven, I feel like this is an album, on my end, that’s more focused on lyricism and just that dark, evil mood. Before 2015 ends, I want people to say, ‘Pusha T put out the hardest ten records.’”