Pusha T's "My Name Is My Name" and the Street Value of Lyrics in Rap

Pusha outperformed expectations. A look at what this might mean for the industry.

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Complex Original

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Pusha T’s sales numbers are in, and they’re pretty damn respectable.

Hits Daily Double is predicting sales in the range of 75-80k—which puts it in the same range as The Clipse’s acclaimed cult classic Hell Hath No Fury, which sold 78k its first week. That was, of course, in 2006, when the industry was well into its sales freefall, but before it had reached its craterous bottom (which, apparently, happened this summer).

There are numerous caveats to the G.O.O.D. news: 1) These are a sales projection, and could change by the end of the week 2) 75k-80k is not that much, really, in the grand scheme and history of things, and 3) Sales are a smaller slice of the overall music industry pie, and have been for a few years. As hip-hop fans, although we still treat the Billboard 200 like a horserace (after all, it’s still a barometer of something), it’s not the same vote of monetary investment it once was. None of this can take away from the fact that Pusha T outperformed expectations—including those of this writer—and suggests that the music industry should probably rethink some of the received wisdom handed down from the pre-Napster era.

Which is to say, 75k-80k for a rapper with no charting singles, who last appeared on a new charting song more than a year ago, and whose sales peak was in 2002, is nothing short of impressive. If these numbers bear out, Pusha will have outsold G.O.O.D. labelmate Big Sean, who sold 72k his first week and had “Beware” with Lil Wayne bouncing around the lower reaches of Top 40. He’ll also have outsold 2 Chainz by even more. Chainz—whose single “Feds Watching” reached No. 66 on the Hot 100—could only knock out 63k of his B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time album. (Which was already a decline of 57% from the sales of his debut.)

It's part of a wider argument being made across the industry: people will spend money on albums by artists they have a connection with.

An obvious conclusion: the reliance of the industry on BDS numbers—in other words, how many radio spins a particular record is getting—to determine whether a record was likely to sell is outdated. Pusha T didn’t sell albums on the radio. It's part of a wider argument being made across the industry: people will spend money on albums by artists they have a connection with. The extreme example was the immediate success of Kendrick Lamar's good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. It may have gone on to push three singles into the Top 40, but when the album was initially released, only "Swimming Pools (Drank)" had charted, and it didn't even peak until after the album's release. Lamar had gone from selling 5,400 copies in the first week of Section.80's release to 242,000 of good Kid, m.A.A.d. City on the strength of growing buzz as an album artist.

Ironically, 2 Chainz's sales dropoff comes when he's released his most album-art statement to date. (Major caveat about 2 Chainz's lack of success: they should have pushed another single before dropping his album, because there are some hits on that record.) But this shows why adapting a marketing approach to an artist's strengths and weaknesses is important. 2 Chainz has been a major player with radio singles, because he makes songs that not only use club beats, but have club-friendly lyrics: the low-brow humor, the punchlines that primarily work in the moment, that are easy to memorize and to rap along with. It's a longstanding tradition in hip-hop.

As is the tradition Pusha represents.

For Pusha's part, My Name Is My Name is an unusual record. It is a fairly unique album, with a well-articulated aesthetic. It bears a strong stamp of Kanye West's creative direction. It's twelve tracks long, and creates a framework that is less visceral or innovative than it is refined, curated, and tasteful. Pusha T is a survivor of an era in which gangster rap was dominant, when street lyricists were dominant and Kanye West was an upstart. Now the tables have turned. The album could be titled Kanye West Presents Pusha T. Pusha is uprooted from his origins, and placed, like a rose inside a transparent dome display case, for Kanye's substantial fanbase, to appreciate. Here he is: the gangster rapper as museum installation. 

His success is refreshing for asserting a certain—of late, unfashionable—dimension within hip-hop. There has been an increasing feeling amongst a segment of older hip-hop fans that lyrics are no longer valued. Their frustration peaked with the success of Trinidad James last year, and his subsequent Def Jam signing. Here was a rapper whose lyrical approach came in somewhere between "haphazard" and "nonexistent." He had a hit, sure—but surely we haven't given up on lyrics completely? The fear was that what had been a core characteristic of the genre—the craft of lyricism—is now seen as mere decoration, as unfashionable as the braids on Pusha T's head.

How could they have disparaged the South, only to have the region become hip-hop's dominant force for the bulk of the 2000s?

Although it might be a bit overstated in an era where rappers branded as "lyrical" see substantial sales—think J. Cole, Wale, and of course Kendrick—it isn't an unwarranted concern, particularly in street rap. Online—where many bloggers became aware of hip-hop as professional obligation rather than as contextual reality experienced since childhood—young writers often downplay lyrics, interpreting hip-hop as a variety of pop music first, its own genre second. (We're intentionally skirting a mention of "hipsters" in this discussion, thanks.) This tendency was probably amplified in reaction to the orthodoxy of hip-hop traditionalists. How could late-'90s heads have hated on Ma$e and Puffy? How could they have disparaged the South, only to have the region become hip-hop's dominant force for the bulk of the 2000s? 

In other words, there were legitimate critiques of certain lyrical rap heads. An unwillingness to adapt to a changing sonic landscape, geographical tunnel vision, and a general fear of dancefloors, for example. But from jiggy N.Y. to Atlanta during the T.I. era, lyricism was still a fundamental. No matter how many pop-rap artists popped off, the craft of rapping was still a dynamic that the genre valued. Some rappers might expand or reject particular aspects of what made a lyricist "good," but "bars," and a rapper's sense of narrative purpose, were a central tenet. Anyone who grew up memorizing rappers' verses, following along with each line bar-for-bar, trying to figure out the particular intricacies of how an artist put words together, or how they shaped a scene through imagery or different rhetorical tactics, believed in them.

There has always been a tension between songwriting and rapping, as crafts deserving of attention. For years, Ras Kass was subject to a debate over whether he would be a bigger artist if he could pick better beats. (In this writer's opinion, his beats aren't that bad at all—"Marinatin'" is fire.) What's changed from that era to now is the nature of songwriting. In the late '90s and early '00s, a rapper like Fabolous—or, for that matter, Pusha—could step in the booth, drop a hot pair of 16s, and dip out. Pharrell took care of the hook. Pharrell had already named the concept. And he and Chad Hugo took care of the beat. With the hip-hop industry moving away from its pop chart dominance, the hip-hop superproducer died with it. Those who remained—like Pharrell and Timbaland—were priced out of range of most rising hip-hop stars, instead working with established vets. New artists—think Gucci Mane and Zaytoven, or Drake and 40—would bring their producers up with them.

There have always been rappers who got by with a few clumsy verses and a catchy hook. But there was a lot more money going into developing artists who rapped for the sake of rapping a decade ago.

They also, as a result, had to be songwriters. Think about how every new artist in the late 00s, from Drake to Soulja Boy, crafted their own hooks, came up with their own concepts. Look at how much of J. Cole's early narrative surrounds this idea of navigating hit-crafting with lyricism. In the wake of the industry's collapse, rappers who want to be successful on a charting, crossover level, have to be considerably more conscious of the craft of songwriting—not just lyricism. There have always been rappers who got by with a few clumsy verses and a catchy hook. But there was a lot more money going into developing artists who rapped for the sake of rapping a decade ago.

This shift is less about hipsters who don't "get" rap, and it isn't about the de-evolution of rap, as much as it is about the economic realities. Labels are investing less money in hip-hop. Lyrical street rappers still exist, from Pusha to Meek Mill, King Louie to Gunplay, Starlito to Kevin Gates. But to cross over as a street artist requires hits, and that means songcraft—something all of those artists have dealt with in different ways. Hopefully, Pusha's success will make labels realize that hip-hop has a saleable appeal beyond  those pop singles, that an audience for street rap lyricists exists. Kanye West's deus ex machina may have helped force a Pusha record out the door, but his risk has been rewarded.

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