On ‘It’s Almost Dry,’ Pusha T Aspires to Be the Scorsese of Street Rap
For his latest album, “It’s Almost Dry,” Pusha T has split production duties between two of the most distinctive auteurs in hip-hop today. Pusha’s fellow Virginia Beach native, Pharrell WIlliams, who was instrumental in his breakthrough as one half of hip-hop duo Clipse, reunites with the rapper for six tracks. The artist formerly known as Kanye West, who produced the artist’s impressive comeback record, 2018’s “Daytona,” helms the album’s other half under his new, truncated moniker of “Ye.” The hybrid aesthetic vision allows for Pusha T’s most vivid account yet of the drug dealing history that has always formed the bulk of his lyrical content. In describing his latest work, Pusha has explained that his aspiration is to be the Martin Scorcese of street rap, and the new material shows him well on his way to achieving this goal.
The album kicks off with a Pharell production, “Brambleton,” which, like most of his contributions to the record, takes loosely after the template of Clipse’s breakthrough 2002 hit ‘Grindin’” — sleek and minimal, driven by hard-hitting drums. Over a squirming synth line, Pusha gets particularly personal as he opens up about his feelings regarding a DJ Vlad-shared interview with former Clipse manager Anthony “Geezy” Gonzalez. His Scorsese-inspired aspirations quickly become evident as he alludes to scenes from both “The Godfather II” and the classic Tupac-starring 1992 film “Juice.” One track further in, on “Let the Smokers Shine the Coupes,” the documentary realism grows steadily more vivid, with Pusha proclaiming himself “Cocaine’s Dr. Seuss” over an instrumental for which he requested Pharell to take inspiration from RZA’s beat vision on Raekwon’s 1995 classic, “Glaciers of Ice.” Pharrell delivers, in a boom bap-based backdrop with exactly the sort of comic book feel that RZA created with his sample collages of erratic sound effects and cinematic snippets.
Pusha has discussed how Pharrell took on a more immersive role in production than Ye, extending beyond beatwork to general songwriting, and this comes across on “Neck & Wrist,” one of the new tracks that finds Pusha trying out new spins on a rapping style that has historically had little variety. Here, he playfully models his flow after 50 Cent’s in that rapper’s 2005 hit, “Window Shopper,” It’s hard not to appreciate how audaciously slick Pusha gets with his braggadocio, as he condescends to his peers whose “eco-friendly jewelers” merely “keep recycling” their styles, and swears that the only time he’d be caught next to a Breitling is in his Bentleys, as Breitlings make the interior clocks. He gets a bit geeky with his incessant cocaine references, making a “Game of Thrones” allusion to the snowy location of “Winterfell.” He portrays trap doors for hiding drugs, insisting, “I promise you the floor plan’s nothin’ like the model,” and drops double entendres like “The dope house had a line.” Jay-Z, who features on the track, is as creative with his wordplay. He takes a jab at actor Faizon Love, who questioned his status as a street legend, commenting, “The phase I’m on, love, I wouldn’t believe it either / I’d be like, ‘JAY-Z’s a cheater,’ I wouldn’t listen to reason either.” Note, Jay-Z’s debut album was titled “Reasonable Doubt.” Jay proceeds to make a pun on “sob story,” recalling his “Saab story,” backed up by the video for “Song Cry,” in which the flashback scenes portrayed him driving the Saab in which he “moved weight.”
“Call My Bluff” is another track in which Pharrell’s production seeps into various aspects of the song. Over a beat that glides and grooves with animated yelps and sound effects, we find Pusha T practically singing in an unprecedentedly relaxed voice that fits his subject matter, as he cooly maintains, “Everything don’t need to be addressed.” He references Akon’s 2004’s track “Locked Up,” which recounts struggles in prison, boasting, “We specialize in not getting locked up, Akon / Haha, I don’t feel like they get that.” “Scrape It Off” features more Pharell trademarks of hard drums and mellow keys, with an entourage that takes readily after the laidback sonic stylings. Don Toliver strings together a hook with an effortlessness that recalls Nate Dogg’s ubiquitous choruses in an earlier era, while Lil Uzi Vert drops a fluid verse with intermittent vocal delays that give the track a vibe that could only have come from Pharrell. “Open Air” brings stuttering snares and entirely unsurprising content from Pusha about “sellin’ cocaine in the open air.”
“Rock ‘n’ Roll” is a natural standout as it blends the creative visions of both Pharrell and Ye. Pharrell handles the drums and throws in more stuttering snares, while Ye contributes his classic sampling of soul vocals, this time cramming them into an onslaught that suggests one of his infamous manic phases. At this stage, Ye’s antics have left him on the outs with his “Kids See Ghosts” collaborator, Kid Cudi, who took to Twitter with a strident bluntness regarding his appearance alongside Ye on this track. In Cudi’s words, “I did this song a year ago when I was still cool w Kanye. I am not cool w that man. He’s not my friend and I only cleared the song for Pusha cuz that’s my guy. This is the last song u will hear me on w Kanye.” As it turns out, Cudi’s contributions to the track are disposably underwhelming, consisting of just some shabby, off-key utterances passed off as a hook. As for Ye, the rapper takes the mic entirely oblivious to the task at hand, diverting from a song about selling cocaine to ostensibly ramble about his dissolved relationship with Kim Kardashian and then about finding Jesus. Pusha T salvages the affair with perhaps his most creative cocaine description yet: “I been gettin’ at these coins as I’m breakin’ down the brick / Make the jump to each level, Super Mario exists.” Anyone who played Mario on the original Nintendo system will recall making Mario jump to knock out coins from bricks. Of course, Pusha is here referring to extracting money from bricks of cocaine — Isn’t hip-hop fun?
Ye’s productions on the record are full of personality. “Dreamin’ of the Past” is a classic example of masterful soul sampling that effectively brings the subject matter to life. Ye draws from Donny Hathaway’s 1972 cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.” As the past that Pusha dreams of here is one of drug dealing, it brings both nostalgia and anxiety. Accordingly, repetitions of “I began to lose control” are interspersed with vivid details that allow us to relive the excitement of Pusha’s criminal past — “We hollowed the walls in back of bodegas.” Pusha namedrops Balenciaga, Lanvin, and Lorraine Schwartz, and puzzles with some of his descriptive choices — “Still I climb, rockstar, Third Eye Blind.” Why Third Eye Blind, out of all bands, one can only wonder. Meanwhile, when it comes time for Ye to drop a verse, he again randomly reverts to rapping about his personal life — “When daddy’s not home, the family’s in danger.” Sure, it’s surprising, but only until you consider that it’s Ye behind the mic.
“Just So You Remember” is a unique number on which Ye crafts a minimal beat of hand drums and a groovy bassline, evoking something of a Blaxploitation feel. On this track, he samples Colonel Bagshot’s 1971 rock song “Six Day War.” Pusha T has revealed that he took inspiration from Joaquin Phoenix’s “Joker,” going so far as to leave the film playing on mute in recording sessions. On this song, he plays up the villainous character, seething and rasping in a viscous voice that can, at times, sound a bit silly, as he drops lines like” My Jokеr smile, you know who the villain is / Just so you remеmber who you dealin’ with.” On lead single “Diet Coke,” Ye puts together a beat in the tradition of classic hip-hop tracks like Nas’ “NY State of Mind” — piano melodies sampled over gritty drums. Here he even throws in his characteristic vocal snippets in the manner of old school turntable scratching. Among the samples employed is 2005 single “Get It Poppin’” by Fat Joe, who infamously rose in the ranks as a crack dealer, making him an apt choice for a Pusha T track. Pusha interpolates lines from Jay-Z’s 1997 cut, “Imaginary Player” for his refrain — “Imaginary players ain’t been coached right.” He continues, boasting about the purity of his product with the titular wordplay — “You ordered Diet Coke, that’s a joke, right?” — and about never getting caught by alluding to the great Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot — “Missy was our only misdemeanor.” The slick descriptions of drug dealing subterfuge keep coming — “Nike box hold a hundred thou’ with no insoles.” Note, Pusha T has a sneaker deal with Adidas, so has no use for Nike boxes other than storage of other goods.
“Hear Me Clearly,” the second single, features a discordant loop, a bit more like Ye’s experiments on “Yeezus” than the more classic stylings that dominate his contributions to this album. The title draws from Jay-Z’s verse on Rick Ross‘ 2010 cut, “Free Mason”: “Hear me clearly: If y’all niggas fear me, just say y’all fear me.” Pusha’s reaches for creative cocaine wordplay grow increasingly, comically outlandish, as he describes himself as “covered in white like bridezilla.” For the grand finale, Ye, who has famously, publicly declared his finding of Christ, serves up “I Pray For You.” The content grows absurdly sanctimonious, as UK artist Labrinth sings “I pray for my enemies / I pray for my friends” over church organ. Pusha T points out that he “even named my son Brixx,” which is indeed a fact, although Pusha was reasonable enough to make “Brixx” the middle name. After a midsection resembling Gregorian chant, Pusha’s brother, the other half of Clipse, make his first appearance under his new moniker. The artist formerly known as “Malice” has renamed himself “No Malice” upon becoming a born again Christian. Alluding to DMX’s classic album “ It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot,” he professes, “X told you Hell is hot, I told you, ‘Repent.’
Altogether, “It’s Almost Dry” finds Pusha T doing what he has always done, and expanding it to a bold new scale. With no shortage of inventive figurative language to describe his drug dealing past, he recounts his seedy adventures in twelve tracks that are brought to life by the two distinct aesthetic visions of Pharrell WIlliams and Ye. One contributes finesse and aplomb, the other eccentricity and arbitrariness. Both put their stylistic stamps on the material, and together create a vivid album of street rap, ideally suited for Pusha T’s content. Several songs find Pusha exploring new directions with his flow, introducing some refreshing variety. The album abounds with esoteric hip-hop allusions and playful wordplay that reward repeated listens, as Pusha T continues to push forward.
“It’s Almost Dry” releases April 22 on Apple Music.