Even though it’s the kind of place real housewives rent out to throw their toddlers $60,000 birthday parties, the Houdini Estate, which is billed as “the perfect retreat for America’s first action hero,” still has the air of being an unspoiled secret hideaway. Trees canopy the winding driveway up to the $12 million dollar property, and nooks blanketed with sexy bougainvillea are carved into the five acres. Thickets of brush absorb the sound of cars zipping down Laurel Canyon. Hidden tunnels and caves are buried all over the place, and today, tucked away in a dark, cool little hole of a room is rap’s own Bruce Wayne, the genre’s first self-professed superhero, Pusha T.
“When it comes to superhero rap, no one can out superhero rap me. Superhero rap is me. That’s mine. That’s my lane of rap,” the 40-year-old rapper says, spearing a piece of turkey on his fork. He’s perched on the edge of a bed, wearing coordinated MCM heather grey sweatshirt and black sweatpants, a navy bandana circling his forehead. He hands his plate to an assistant, leaving a poached egg and slice of smoked salmon.
“You wanna talk about what’s going on in society? I can hit on that. You wanna talk about what’s going on in the streets? I can hit on that. If you wanna hear the glamour, I can touch on all of that,” he says. “And I can speak to it from my perspective and from my peers who aren’t in the music game—the have nots who have it all.”
If it sounds like he’s bragging, well, he is. But his braggadocio is based in fact. Since the early 2000s, Pusha T has been one of the most incisive, diamond-hard voices in rap. Along with his older brother Malice, Pusha T formed the Clipse and released Lord Willin’ in 2002. Produced entirely by fellow Virginia natives the Neptunes, Lord Willin’ sent the rap world into a tailspin. Led by the hollowed-out shell of “Grindin’,” the album still feels light years ahead of its time; the Neptunes’ aggressively non-melodic, wonked outer space production was a natural fit for lyrics spit around the razor blades tucked in the brothers’ cheeks. They dropped another icy, drug-dealer-cold classic, Hell Hath No Fury, before lightening the mood a bit in favor of more redemptive rap on their third and final Clipse release, Til the Casket Drops. But after Pusha T signed to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music a year later and his brother converted to Christianity, he snapped back into old habits and wiped the smile off his face with the release of his 2013 solo debut, the critically acclaimed My Name Is My Name. His sophomore effort, King Push—Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude, was similarly praised, drumming up keen interest in his forthcoming album King Push, much of which is produced by Kanye West.
“I’m inspired as of late by the lack of good raps,” he says, all wide-eyed with false innocence. “So my whole thing has been to make the best raps ever. I don’t hear good raps. With words, things like that. Storytelling, bars, anything. I don't hear that that much. So, I was like, ‘Oh I’ll do that.’”
He’s been in this game for years. He knows what he’s doing. Sometimes superheroes need to flex.
One of Pusha T’s superhero abilities is waking up every day at 6 a.m., the hour most rappers are just heading to bed. He’s the one who requested the 8 a.m. call time for today’s MCM shoot, though perhaps he was just trying to outsmart the predicted temperature spike. In Los Angeles, summer doesn't bloat the air with humidity like it does in Virginia, where Pusha grew up. Still, it’s hot–the heat’s already sucked the breeze out of the canyon.
But Push seems unbothered by the elements. He rises early to beat dawn to the punch. He’s definitely not sweating, even in sweats and wool sweaters.
“I never slept in. Ever since grade school, I was up at six o’clock,” he says.
Born Terrence Thornton in the Bronx, Pusha’s family soon moved to Virginia Beach, where as the baby of the bunch, he says he was a brat.
“Spoiled kid. I used to have to go everywhere with my brother. For him to do anything, he had to take me with him,” he says. “Outside of that, my mom, dad, grandmother were pretty much catering to me.” He was gifted a lot of freedom, and skipped school to hang out at his friend Pharrell Williams’ house. When he cared, though, he could excel. Once, after particularly bad report cards, he and his best friend Traci decided they’d make honor roll the next semester. They did.
Still, he didn’t get everything he wanted.
“I cried for Adidas track suits. Cried tears. Tears,” he says. “Older, it turned into American high end. Polo, Hilfiger, Nautica. I just wanted to be like my rappers. I felt like as a good rapper, people are supposed to want to rap like you, look like you, do something you do. Grand Puba was style god.”
Admittedly, he’s less confident about his style than music. “I still haven’t found my Fred Durst. If you can just put on a uniform every single day, and let that be that, you won. And I haven’t found that yet,” he says. “Nobody in the world can look like Pharrell Williams. His whole thing is pretty much a uniform. It’s really, really, really, really honed in. To me, everybody else is just putting on the latest fashion trends.”
Although Pusha is 40, he seems younger. Part of that is his appearance–his uncreased skin, signature braids and preference for streetwear over suits–but it’s also due to his role as president of G.O.O.D. Music. It’s his job to scroll social media by day and turn up at the club by night. Pusha T’s prescription for a youthful glow? A low carb diet, eight hours of sleep, and daily visits to Worldstar.
"I still haven’t found my Fred Durst. If you can just put on a uniform every single day, and let that be that, you won."
“I’ve always been looking for what’s next. I’m not like my parents at 40. My parents didn’t understand rap at 40. They could not tell me why N.W.A. was who they were or why Rakim was great,” he says. “I can tell you why Young Thug is awesome—he’s a free spirit, unorthodox, melody finder, flow finder, risk taker. He’s dope. I can tell you why the new kids are great. Even if it’s not always for me, I can still appreciate it. I’m amongst it, compete with it.”
Compete with it, yes, but don’t ever expect him to imitate it.
“Everything that’s hot to me is around my age. All the great people in the world, all the artists I respect and love are of THAT time,” he explains. Besides, “Forty is hot. I’m buying Ferraris and things.”
That mentality is at work on King Push, his third solo album, due out this year. When Kanye West, who’s also in Pusha’s age bracket, heard Pusha’s initial ideas, he suggested the two hole up and work in Utah. To date, West has produced almost half of it.
“Superhero production meets superhero raps,” Pusha says. “We spend our days listening to music. Not even rapping so much. I’ll be like, ‘WOW, that’s hot,’ and he’ll be like, ‘Yeah, that’s sorta hot, ain’t it?’ Then he starts doing his beat thing, and I’ll find something in what he’s recording and he’ll give me four bars of that and I’ll take that into another engineering room. I’ll loop that 24 bars, however long I think it should be, and I’ll write verses to that. Then I’ll give him my verses and be like, ‘That’s what I think to that.’”
A perfectionist, Pusha says his process is painstaking, but around West, he accelerates his pace. “When I’m around him, I gotta keep his interest,” he says. “Man, listen. That guy got trillions of people bothering him all day long. So if he’s taking the time to be like, ‘Hey, let’s go somewhere and lock in on this,’ I wanna keep the momentum going. If it’s taking too long on a verse, I’ll put whatever I got down, and be like, ‘Here, this is what I’m thinking, but let’s move on.’ That way I can keep surprising him.”
Of Pharrell, who also has a few tracks on the album, he says they’ve worked together so long that it’s not even work. “I just do what I’m told,” he says, laughing.
There’s another reason Pusha prefers to work with these guys—he has little patience for smoky, Hennessey-drenched recording studio hangs. The mirthlessness in Pusha’s raps is not an act. He laughs rarely in our interview, and when he does, it’s deliberate and, on more than one occasion, mocking.
“If I like you and think you’re great, then I’m like, Here’s my verse. Match. This. Jay Z, Rick Ross, Fab. They’re flawless individuals. They don't miss. I feel like it’s [a] respectful way of doing things. ‘Cause they craft,” he says.
“I like to craft. I don't like you over my shoulder, bothering me. I don't need to smoke weed, drink Hennessy and dance around the room with you. It don’t have to be vibey. If you’re serious about it like I am, then you really do wanna sit down,” he continues.
Though he’s serious about his shit, it’s not all work and no play. After all, he’s a famous rapper. Clothes appear magically in the mail. His DMs are so full, women can’t even squeeze in. Bottles are popped just to be used as grown-up versions of Super Soakers. If it’s not fun, why do it?
Pusha T knows this. “I wanna go to the Mayweather fight and hear trap music after and see fresh clothes and big cars and big jewelry and hear people say obnoxious, obnoxious things,” he admits. “And I want people [to] be lavish and glamorous, and even when they’re not, I want them to act like it.”
But that’s the reward, and right now, there’s work to do. He’s heading to meet another former boy wonder turned superhero, Pharrell, who keeps the same schedule as Pusha—he’s been at the studio since 6 a.m.
At the Houdini Estate, there’s a deep-water tank where Harry Houdini reportedly practiced his escapes. But he’s got nothing on Pusha T. Ducking into a car, Pusha takes off, executing his own swift getaway. It’s not yet 11 a.m.