Less than 24 hours after its long-awaited release, DAYTONA was already stoking a fiery reception. The closer, ‘Infrared’, an unusually calm diss track, prompted Drizzy himself to drop an exasperated freestyle in response. But Pusha-T’s chewy putdowns aren’t easy to shake. “How could you ever right these wrongs/ When you don’t even write your songs?”. Ouch. Produced by Kanye West, the 41-year-old Virginian MC’s third studio album sets out to prove that his cocaine flows are still a cut above the hooky radio rap filling the Billboard. He mostly succeeds
Running at a brisk seven tracks, it is a masterclass in airtight design, every bar and sample whittled down to a razored edge. The conscious raps that finished Darkness Before the Dawn are swapped for refined versions of the drug poetry that characterised Pusha’s earlier work on Clipse, where he shared a mic with brother No Malice. In fact, DAYTONA often sounds like a distillation of that duo’s 2006 masterclass Hell Hath No Fury; the rattling drums, the knotty Biggie-tipping wordplay, with not a single concession made for chart trends. Nas might have pronounced the joint a modern classic, but the beats are uncut RZA, dusty old soul patchworks that even Joe Budden could love.
Nothing wrong with sticking to your territory, though. Few other voices in contemporary hip-hop mark out their lyrical space with such imperious skill. On blistering opener ‘If You Know You Know’, Pusha casts his trapping experiences as the first step on the staircase to chart supremacy. ‘A rapper turned trapper can’t morph into us /But a trapper turned rapper can morph into Puff’. Here, he becomes the game’s moral conscience, holding both ghostwriting superstars and irresponsible newbies to judgement. He wants them to respect the graft. Sure, the shots at Soundcloud rap come off a bit cranky oldhead but Pusha’s phlegmy disdain is so addictive that you might feel he’s got a point about the pink hair.
Certain broadcasters might wonder whether the president of GOOD Music has any business rapping about shifting kilos anymore. What matters is that his trafficking tales are still compelling after twenty years on the hustle. But when Pusha does venture beyond his tested shtick, he ends up delivering the album’s most arresting performance. On ‘Santeria’, he eulogises his road manager, De’Von “DayDay” Pickett, over a restless soundscape; wiry chords drop away as 070 Shake chants a eulogy over grumbling synth bass, before shifting into a hi-hat driven outro as Pusha promises vengeance on Pickett’s killers: ‘And all praise, no jail bars can save/ Leave you like Malcolm where X marks your grave”. It’s the most menacingly alive he’s sounded on record, and you never doubt his ability to carry through on every murderous syllable.
Not everything works. ‘Hard Piano’ has a clanging opening-“Never trust a bitch who finds love in a camera/She will f*** you, then turn around and f*** a janitor”- reminding us that at his worst, Pusha’s verses read like excerpts from an incel’s self-help manual. It’s a pity, because the instrumental, which hovers on a bed of pillowy synths and shimmying keys, is astounding, a production coup fit for a throne room. When Pusha rhymes about his hard-earned collection of Warhol originals, he almost sounds like the crack pharaoh he makes out, until you remember he is still a few blocks away from the peak of the pyramid.
Because as consistently brilliant as DAYTONA is, you do wonder whether it is just personalised debris orbiting West’s intergalactically enlarged ego. The Chicagoan superstar has the first and last word on ‘What Would Meek Do’, effectively reducing Pusha to a featured artist on his own album. The seven-track limit was a West executive decision, and the eclectic sample speaks to his wry taste – the serrated electro backing is ripped from ‘Heart of Sunrise’ by progressive rockers Yes, a group you would hardly quote as a model for DAYTONA‘s minimalist brevity.
Then there’s the sleeve, which was switched by West at the last minute to a grim 2006 photograph of the late Whitney Houston’s bedroom, strewn with heroin spoons. It’s bold packaging for a record that proudly credits coke money for funding local urban regeneration projects. But the picture hints at an awareness about the grim subject matter that goes beyond clever puns about hollow tennis balls. Pusha is an expert in the sale, but he calculates the cost, too.
Some of his brags stretch the listener’s good humour; stripped down hip-hop about mixing angel dust with talcum powder rarely put their authors in the same apartment block as Rhianna. But DAYTONA‘s frequent highs confirm that Pusha-T’s old-school rhymes not only deserve the best sonic punctuation, but remain potent- both musically and morally.