Pusha T: Push Comes To Shove (2013 Online Cover Story)

The release of Pusha's solo debut raises a loaded question: Will this certified legend in two games ever choose one?

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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The release of King Push’s solo debut raises a loaded question: will this certified legend in two games ever choose one?

This feature is a part of Complex's Pusha T Week.

On a humid evening in September, the Industria Superstudio in NYC’s West Village has been transformed into a Donda installation for an album unveiling from one of the most respected and enigmatic artists in rap today. Attractive ladies in Breaking Bad-esque hazmat suits distribute Hennessy cocktails. Enormous black-and-white photos from the packaging of Pusha T’s highly anticipated solo debut My Name Is My Name line the walls of the cavernous space, printed on canvas and stretched out on huge metal frames. Terrence Thornton a.k.a. Pusha T stands surrounded by a throng of bloggers, tastemakers, and fans, spitting the opening bars from a new song called “Hold On”: “I sold more dope than I sold records/You niggas sold records never sold dope!” The lyric stands out—not because of the subject matter itself, but because it’s actually believable.

Back in 2002, on the intro to The Clipse’s indelible first single “Grindin,” the Virginia-based rapper identified himself as your personal pusher. On the same record he asserted that he was a “legend in two games, like Pee Wee Kirkland,” the famous street baller who also did time for drug distribution. Add up the sales of The Clipse’s three album releases—Lord Willin’ (2002), Hell Hath No Fury (2006), and Til The Casket Drops (2009)—and you’re left with roughly 1.3 million units moved over a seven-year span. Barely enough to keep two young ballers properly laced.

Though he doesn’t go into ounces, grams, and kilos, King Push keeps his explanation of “Hold On” surprisingly blunt: “I’ve never sold enough records to take me away from the life and that’s my point. They’ve lived a whole ’nother lifestyle than I have and I’ve lived a whole ’nother lifestyle than they have. I haven’t sold enough records to turn my back.”

I’ve never sold enough records to take me away from the life and that’s my point.

Is this decision a conscious one? Pharrell Williams, one-half of the Neptunes duo responsible for producing The Clipse’s three albums thinks so. “He looks enormous success in the face and he turns it away because he still feels like he speaks for the underdog,” says Pharrell. “Pusha really sympathizes and really rides for that world, so he’s always talking about cocaine. He’s always talking about the ambition in a 19-year-old’s eyes to be a big dealer, drive big cars, run from the feds. He’s so real with that.”

Decked out in red Balmain leather pants, a gray shirt that’s likely worth more than your Js, two thin gold chains, and a colorful Ale et Ange snapback, Pusha emphatically raps along to tracks from his long-awaited release. The crowd is racially mixed but stylistically there are common themes—there’s at least half a dozen 40oz snapbacks, plus plenty of denim and camo. Pusha's fans follow his style cues to a T; they obsess over his exquisitely crafted lyrics, and most of all they appreciate his realness.

Talk of a Pusha T solo album has been bubbling since his he skipped across the VMA stage in that salmon-colored suit to perform his verse on Kanye West’s “Runaway” back in September 2010. Since then he’s put out a slew of features, two mixtapes, and played a major role on G.O.O.D. Music’s Cruel Summer album. Comrades Big Sean, Kid Cudi, 2 Chainz, and Mr. West himself, have all released solo projects since then. Meanwhile both critics and supporters began to wonder if Pusha had been moved to the clubhouse just when it seemed like he was in the on-deck circle for G.O.O.D. Music’s All-Star squad.

No official single from My Name Is My Name has charted on Billboard. The initial buzz around “Numbers on the Board” has faded despite the boisterous clip of Pusha pleading with Kanye to put the record out having over 150,000 views on YouTube. The album's release date being postponed from early 2013 to July 16 to its new date of October 8 has only fueled skepticism about whether or not Pusha’s debut would actually reach shelves.

Though Pusha heard the talk, he remained patient and kept the faith that his first solo project would benefit from all the added time and attention. “It’s been a long time coming but I only say that because people feel like it’s been a long time coming,” he says of the delay. “I think it was required. I had to make sure that all the bases were covered. I started out with mixed reviews, with me doing solo freestyles. So I felt like it took this long for me to get people comfortable with Pusha T the solo artist.”

Some listening sessions are tricked out like mini award-shows, but My Name Is My Name’s premiere stuck to the basics. There was no fancy promo gear for those seated in V.I.P. areas—as a matter of fact there were no seating areas at all, or even a stage for the artist to perform on. The lights dimmed and the sound system was cranked to ear-splitting levels as Pusha T stood toe to toe with his fans, threw his hands in the air, and began to rhyme. The crowd pushed in on him with their iPhone cameras and Digital SLRs flickering, barely giving him the breathing room he needed to perform.

Make all the records you wanna make. Say all the sh*t you wanna say. What comes of it comes of it. We ain't reaching for nothing.

“‘Ye brought that to me. He played it for me and I immediately was like, ‘I hope you’re not playing this just to show me how good of a beat this is,’” Pusha says of "King Push," the Sebastian Sartor—stepson of Metallica's Lars Ulrich—produced track that opens the album. “I was kind of shocked that Kanye gave it up so willingly.”

Such is the life of any artist signed through another artist. Mixed signals and divided loyalties come with the territory. But Kanye was not only willing to provide Pusha with this hellish-sounding, chest-thumping instrumental but also gave an epic rant on Push’s behalf in the middle of the listening session. “Everything is Pusha T! Pyrex Vision, that’s Pusha! Fear of God, that’s Pusha T! This nigga is the heart of the motherfucking culture for you culture vultures!” Though admittedly “gone off that Goose right now,” West's enthusiasm is palpable. “This is the only nigga spitting that wild motherfucking hip-hop shit right now! That’s why I stand next to this nigga!” But the question remains: Will “wild motherfucking hip-hop shit” and a co-sign from the most talked about character in the rap game be enough to push My Name Is My Name beyond Pusha's established fan base?

Just a month earlier, at the OVO Fest in Toronto's Molson Canadian Amphitheatre, Kanye stood next to and sang the praises of Drake, the same man Pusha once taunted on record with lines like “the swag don’t match the sweaters.” Not only did West perform a surprise set on the show, he also stated that Drake was the motivation behind him and Jay Z releasing Watch the Throne—because they thought Drake was coming for the aforementioned royal seat. You might think this would feel like a moment of confusion or betrayal for Pusha, but he says you’d be wrong.

“I can't push my views on ‘Ye, [Big] Sean, anybody," he says. "I handle business. I do the things I do because people get out of line. When the guns come out, that's how it comes. I hope at the end of the day everybody can respect my stances like I respect theirs.” He continues, “That ain't gonna ever affect us. [Kanye] said Wayne was ‘the best rapper’ at one point. I ain't never thought that man was the best rapper! He'll say that Mase was his favorite rapper of all time. Alright—he ain't been mine. And I think at the end of the day, ‘Ye knows ‘Man, Pusha don't give a fuck.’ I don't give a fuck about anything! None of this bothers me. I live on a very real level of life.”

Ye played ['King Push'] for me and I immediately was like, ‘I hope you’re not playing this just to show me how good of a beat this is…' I was kind of shocked that Kanye gave it up so willingly.

When he played Kanye “Exodus,” the song where Pusha appears to be getting at Lil Wayne and Drake with thinly veiled lyrical shots, Pusha says 'Ye told him, “'This is the rawest song ever. This is a great song. This song needs to be out now.’ He doesn’t care about subliminals as long as the music is good.”

Pusha’s "real level of life" is different from the man who gave him the platform for his solo debut. Trips to London or Paris to meet with Kanye often involved hotel stays lasting weeks or more at a time. During these trips Pusha was happy to collab with Kanye but also needed to stay active in the public eye, not just to maintain a buzz but to keep his paper up. This was a sentiment Kanye didn’t always understand.

“He's like ‘You leaving?’” Pusha recalls. “I'm like, ‘Yeah man. I gotta go get some money.’ There's a disconnect in lifestyle with me and him. It's like ‘Alright, well, can you come back?’ But he's talking like I'm going from north of Virginia to D.C. when I'm going from Virginia to fucking London or Paris. And I'm like, ‘Yeah, I'll come back. I'ma let you know when I come back.’ In that sense, when I do come back I gotta come with ‘Numbers on the Board.’ You know, you gotta spark these guys. You can't just be sitting with these motherfuckers. These guys are rich.”

While recording My Name Is My Name, “corporate shit” or pushing for radio singles was not allowed. Indeed, any mention of such sentiments was enough to get people banished from the studio. “He would say ‘Fuck that. We doing what the fuck we wanna do,'" Pusha recalls. "'Make all the records you wanna make. Say all the shit you wanna say. What comes of it comes of it. We ain't reaching for nothing.’”

The absence of "corporate shit" doesn't mean Pusha is one dimensional on his solo coming out party however. "It’s easy working with him. He’s not a diva at all," says Kelly Rowland, who sings on "Let Me Love You" the standout R&B-influenced cut on My Name Is My Name. "That track shows a softer side, and that’s what I like about it. I felt like we balanced each other out. It changes things up a bit and shows how he can rhyme about it all."

Whether he’s in the studio or dealing with press, Pusha does his best to avoid distractions. On a gloomy day after the My Name Is My Name listening session, the rapper, his small entourage, and a few media members pile into a black Lincoln Navigator. On the ride up to the birthplace of hip-hop, the Sedgwick Houses in the Bronx, for an interview with MTV News, the hot-button topic of the day comes up in conversation—Hot 97 DJ Mister Cee's latest scandal involving a transsexual.

“Just play the 'Throwback at Noon' and rock out, man!” Pusha says, annoyed. “I'm sick of outing it! ‘Oh, he outed!’ No! Live! I just want you to live!” Pusha remembers Cee as the guy with a spot on the back of Long Live the Kane. “I don't want no more forums,” he says. “We're growing as a country and we need to be accepting of everything.”

As with any other form of entertainment, the biggest hip-hop stories are fueled by controversy. Whether it’s Mister Cee’s sexual orientation, Gucci Mane suffering from a case of logorrhea on Twitter, or Miley Cyrus making twerking a household term—many of the genre’s most talked-about moments have little to do with beats and bars.

Hate it or love it, King Push is not immune to this. Slick jabs have stolen the spotlight from his lyrical acrobatics. A quick Google search for Pusha T doesn’t find My Name Is My Name at the top of the page—instead the first result is about him saying Lil Wayne’s Dedication 5 is “trash” in an interview.

Pusha may not be fond of this fact, but he plays the cards he’s been dealt. “I think it’s horrible, but it’s just this rap game that we live in,” he says. “I answer the questions that I’m asked. I can’t afford to shy away from anything at this point.” His self awareness is refreshing in an era where some rappers spit rhymes about cars worth ten times their album budgets. You won’t find Pusha T rapping about copping Bugattis or matching Learjets with Mr. West. Instead his focus remains on the two things he’s best known for: dope and (dope) lyrics.

"He loves walking into the ratchet halls and hearing his music ring," says Pharrell, "and seein’ all the new, young hustlers being inspired by that. He loves that. But, that’s not the only slice to his personality. There is far more, and I think that probably on this next album after this, people are gonna start to see Pusha from the Zeppelin view versus Pusha in that new $200,000 something with tinted windows, throwin’ money out the sunroof screaming, 'Money ain’t a thang…'”

As Nasty Nas once observed: "Sometimes the rap game reminds me of the crack game." And the cold hard truth of the rap game in 2013 is that there may not be a next album after this if My Name Is My Name fails to achieve some semblance of crossover success. But Pusha T appears confident that the fate of his solo debut is already sealed. “I told you guys months ago that I got the best album—the best hip-hop album. Everybody thought I was talking shit. Everybody thought I was doing the typical rapper thing. I’m not no liar. I don’t lie. Don’t nobody got a better hip-hop album than mine. And I called it, so I already won in that aspect. I called it. I told everybody. Now y’all know that my Ouija board does work.”

He does not say what sort of first-week sales his Ouija board foretells. Fans will have to wait and see whether My Name Is My Name goes gold in an era where moving 500,000 units almost automatically guarantees a spot in the top 5 selling hip-hop albums of the year. Whether he receives a plaque or not, Pusha's insistence on remaining true to the life he's always known gives him a hood certification that can't be tracked on SoundScan.

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