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New to You Music in 2015: Pusha-T

One of my New Years’ resolutions was to listen to new music, well, new music to me.  It’s been a busy half decade or so and seriously, I haven’t sought out anything new in a long time.  I gotta say it took me awhile (five weeks into 2015) to find something I wanted to write about.  I bought Lana Del Rey’s album Ultraviolence–it’s fine, I might still write about it, but well, lemme just say I could resist writing about it.  Then I bought Lucinda William’s double album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.  And yeah, I’m glad I bought that because well, it’s Lucinda Williams.  Henry Carrigan over at No Depression compares Lucinda Williams to Flannery O’Conner:

Like O’Connor, Lucinda Williams captures in her songs the ragged, jagged, sometimes twisted and bitter nature of human relationships; like O’Connor, Williams beautifully renders in often haunting prose our aching desires for transcendence, even while we embrace our crippled mortal states. Unlike O’Connor, though, she embraces our constant struggle between flesh and spirit with an exuberance and downright joie de vivre that acknowledges our losses with poignant regret, while at the same time revealing the fervent hope and ardent passion that lies beneath living life fully.

I can listen to Lucinda Williams and Lana del Rey in the background while I write or wash the dishes, but neither brought the excitement, the I-want-to-listen-to-this-album-on-repeat, the I’m-in-the-presence-of-brilliance feeling that I got (well, get) when I listen to Pusha-T.  Pusha-T is one of the brothers in the hip-hop duo Clipse (the other brother is Malice who found Jesus and became, fittingly, No Malice).  Pusha-T went solo a couple years ago hooking up with Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music machine, and came out with the mixtape Fear of God and then an album length project Fear of God II (2011) and another mix-tape kind of production Wrath of Caine (2013), which are all impressive.  There has been some talk that My Name is My Name, which came out shortly after WoC and Kanye produced, isn’t well produced–I don’t know, I just listened to the first three.  Pusha-T is a pretty far cry from Lana Del Rey and Lucinda Williams so I have to acknowledge that I came to Pusha-T’s work with a little help from my friends, specifically Chris Davidson, a graduate school friend of mine who graciously agreed to put together a list of things he thought I might want to hear when I told him I was looking to catch up on what’s been hot in music from the last five years or so.  Friday was the first day I downloaded the Mixtapes, but since then I’ve been listening constantly.

Good rap is exciting to me the way that good improv is.  Good rap produces the dig, the wink, the inside joke, the rhyme that you just didn’t see coming but when it does you smile or even laugh because it was just so good.  Last night, I saw the Improvised Shakespeare Company perform at Wabash College.  It was impressive — an audience member throws out a title for a play and three players make up a Shakespearean-themed play complete with Shakespearean language, insults, rhyming couplets and star-crossed love.  The audience was enjoying the players’ success at rhyming and responding to one another, breaking out into applause for a well-done rhyme or a good insult.  Today as I listen to Push again (and again) I’ve been thinking that improv is white people’s rap (except that yes white people try to make rap itself white people’s which you can read more about here and here).  But you know, being white people’s, it gets a lot more respect in mainstream culture — and hell, it’s Shakespeare, so it’s obviously culturally important.  I’m not saying it wasn’t good (it was), or that it wasn’t impressive and obviously hard (it was), or that I don’t have a whole lotta respect for those three players (I do, and I was pretty psyched that one of them graduated from college with me).  I’m just saying, there are ways that what we find good in improv is similar to what people appreciate in good rap, but we don’t give rap nearly the respect it deserves for doing the same hard and creative work that improv does, and well, we should pay attention to the fact that it’s largely black people who rap and white people who do improv.

As in improv, rap references its particular moment.   The improvised play last night had this long-running bit about global exploration as a metaphor for a sexual encounter that included one line about how travel funds have not been approved yet for that move, which was very clever for a production at a college.  Push does something perhaps even more cunning in his song “Don’t F*** With Me (Dreams Money Can’t Buy).”  This song is a direct reference to Drake’s song “Dreams Money Can Buy,” which Push quotes with his chorus singing the same line with the same melody as Drake’s song.

Drake’s song is about how he can use his money to solve whatever problem he encounters, which produces a feeling of a high (note that Pusha is known as the king of the coke flow).  Push’s song ups the ante and directs his concern against Drake by repeating the line, the melody, and suggesting that Drake’s money is not getting him the same dream that Push can live because of his skill.  It seems like he’s not just dogging Drake for not being quite what he thought he was but even, in a song that directly without even trying to pretend otherwise uses Drake’s lines and his melody, accuses Drake of stealing his lines as when he writes, “The nerve of you/ He’ll sit and clip at your lines like he ain’t heard of you,” and later, “Rappers only sophomores, acting like they’re boss lords.”  Against Drake’s claim that being rich and famous is a high, Push raps, “I never wished to be famous / truth told I’d much rather be strangers.”  Drake talks about trying to bring his girl to Paris in “Dreams Money Can Buy,” and Push nods to that when he raps, “When n*****s start believing all those encores / I’m just the one to send you off, bonjour.”

In both songs, the content of the line, “Don’t F*** With Me,” clashes with the melodic lightness of the chorus, but Push’s song seems to use that dissonance to question the lightness which comes through when he slows down in the middle of the song and says, “There are a lot of people out there to be f***ed with / I am not one of them” at a different tempo than everything else in the song that seems to make the lightness more of poking fun at Drake than repeating the same sense of distance between the cheeriness of the chorus and the fight in the words.

I’m not saying anything earth-shatteringly new when I say this song is a direct challenge to Drake.  This has been noticed before, and Drake has even responded (and in fact, in Pusha’s track “Intro” on Wrath of Caine, Pusha responds to Drake when he raps, “Throwing shots at n****s cuz I’m bored” which I thought laid the irony in pretty thick because of course Pusha is paying attention to what Drake is saying about him) but still it’s genius.  And it’s genius much like improv is.  In fact, this track even references sketch comedy.  Like improv, rap looks to make the unexpected rhyme, the long-referenced rhyme, the joke you can only get if you have been listening several rounds into the exchange, recalling the history and the backstory, building a community between the performers and the listeners that make the listeners excited at the verbal machinations and mental acuity – I think that’s why rap is successful as a political genre.  I’m sure since I’ve been kind of out of it music-wise, there’s a lot that I don’t get here, but Push’s rapping makes you want to get more, listen harder.  It ain’t easy listening, as Pusha remarks in an interview, “I feel like to me, I just do street hip hop. And to me that’s the energy that’s missing in hip hop. Hip hop right now is jus a whole bunch of easy listening.”

There’s been some really good work being done by people like Robin James over at Its Her Factory that approaches music as a sphere of analysis of our cultural and political investments in a neoliberal age.  James argues that hiphop is one of the most vibrant places of black philosophy in contemporary America.  I’m not approaching anything close to that level of work.  But I am saying Rolling Stone might be on to something when they refer to Pusha-T’s latest album as “the year’s sharpest hit of street philosophy.”

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