Pusha T’s ‘DAYTONA’ has ‘album of the year’ in its DNA

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

Christmas came early this year, and Pusha T brought the snow. On May 25, the acting president of the GOOD Music label released his highly anticipated third studio album DAYTONA to much fanfare. Kanye West, who produced this album, has promised an album every week throughout June — in the same vein as GOOD Fridays — with DAYTONA being the first. With pitch-perfect production and singularly evocative lyricism, Pusha T claims the summer and the year for his label and his own.

At seven tracks, DAYTONA has no room to be bloated. On the beats, West presents an energy matching that of Watch the Throne, his collaboration with mentor Jay-Z, whom Pusha T has often cited as an influence. The intensity lands immediately with the album opener, “If You Know You Know.” The first verse serves not only as an introduction to the song but also to the album; Pusha T paints a picture of a veteran dealer, “Pullin’ up in that new toy,” to tell his tale. Incessant percussion keeps time, weaving uneasy anticipation until the celebratory punchline: “That was 10 years ago / If you know, you know.” Then the beat flips: Synth power chords alternate with an off-kilter vocal breakdown for an anthem that carefully avoids pop cliché territory.

Sample-based production is on full display here, as in “The Games We Play.” Pusha T dictates a beginner’s hip-hop history as he likens himself to the greats of the ‘90s. In the catchiest hook on the album, Pusha T asserts he is “the names they say” while offering solidarity to those who are now where he started. The occasional big-band brass brings shimmer to an already glamorous track. Similarly, “Santeria,” the last song in the primary rags-to-riches story, features production as close to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as West has put out in recent years. Pusha T mourns the death of his close friend and manager, De’Von Pickett, as accompaniment and narrative meld into a sorrowful opera. Labelmate 070 Shake’s singing voice is a highlight, as is the ending sample, which evokes the shadowy sounds of film noir.

Pusha T has never been one to shy away from minimalistic production, and it shows. The preceding track — the sinister, foreboding “Come Back Baby” — shows Pusha T at his most aggressive, matching the track’s sole pattern, a frenetic bass and snare. On the first verse, Pusha T’s flow mirrors Nicki Minaj’s hook in “Chun-Li” from earlier this year. Of the two, Pusha T’s verse is more colorful, a detailed portrait of a kingpin.

On such a short album, there is precious little room for features, and only two frequent collaborators appear: West himself on “What Would Meek Do?” and Rick Ross on “Hard Piano.” The latter track is better, as both Ross and Pusha T are at peak form. Mirroring Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.,” Pusha T offers investment advice: Modern art is haute, while Pateks are not. The newest generation of hip-hop gets a needling: “I’m too rare among all this pink hair,” raps Pusha T, echoing sentiments in YG’s “Suu Whoop”. Ross’ verse is boisterous as usual, and he makes passing reference to Drake’s alleged ghostwriter, Quentin Miller, rapping, “My homie amputated, but gon’ stand for something,” likely speaking on Miller’s leg amputation. In comparison, West’s verse on “What Would Meek Do?” feels phoned in and even obligatory: West proves again that he is cognizant of his detractors but avoids addressing their points.

DAYTONA culminates in “Infrared,” Pusha T’s lyrical shot at Drake and Birdman’s camp. Suffice it to say that in a war of Twitter and trigger fingers, a singer was bodied by a former slinger. If, on his upcoming album, Drake chooses to respond to Pusha T’s threats of a “surgical summer,” he will have a tough act to follow: DAYTONA is not only authentic, but also short and to the point, the antithesis of the modern album. Eghck!

Contact Seiji Sakiyama at [email protected].