Luxury and Mockery on Pusha T’s “It’s Almost Dry”

Pusha T has made music for more than two decades, first as the younger brother in the Virginia rap duo Clipse, and then, in the twenty-tens, as Kanye (Ye) West’s consigliere and attack dog. He’s spent the vast majority of that time rapping about his great subject, cocaine. Since releasing his “Fear of God” mixtape, in 2011, Pusha has built a reputation, brick by brick, as a relentless rhapsodist, culminating in a Grammy nomination for his 2018 album, “Daytona.” The record seemed to elevate him to a new echelon of rap fame—Nas called it a classic and Diddy said it was “a modern day masterpiece”—and its rollout was crowned by a vicious triumph in Pusha’s years-long feud with Drake. The petty victory and critical acclaim set the stage for his newest record, “It’s Almost Dry,” a coke epic about authenticity and rank—one that doubles down on exposing counterfeits.

At the beginning of his career, Pusha’s rapping served as the flamboyant underscore to his brother Malice’s reflective storytelling. That same punchiness makes Pusha stand out as a soloist. He is far from being the greatest coke rapper—he’s characterized Raekwon’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx” as his North Star—but his emphatic, unapologetic style lends itself to drug-lord splendor. He often cites the ruthless kingpin Alejandro Sosa, from Brian De Palma’s crime drama “Scarface,” as an inspiration in his songs; the two seem to share a cutthroat demeanor and a penchant for dispatching foes. He’s single-minded to a fault, but the work is buoyed by his cleverness and consistency. And it helps that he is a favorite of two of the best hip-hop producers of the twenty-first century: Kanye and Pharrell Williams, both of whom have made the beats that sustain his visions of a narcotic empire.

“It’s Almost Dry” is as leisurely as it is confrontational, performed from a position of casual, assumed superiority. Here, we see Pusha looking down from an upper tier of celebrity and wealth, dismissive of those he sees as lesser but unable to resist mocking their acts of gracelessness. He’s long been fluent in the idioms of shit-talking and one-upmanship, and, on this record, the targets of his disdain are posers and social climbers—those who ape a life style that they’ll never have. He seems more eager to outperform competitors than enjoy the spoils of his drug money. “Flew your bitch to Cuba for the thrill of it,” he sneers on “Just So You Remember.” “But I ain’t go, to show you what you shoulda did.” Twice he likens himself to the Joker. Unlike Jay-Z, whose mogul transformation was the by-product of careerist ambitions, Pusha’s rise seems to have been fuelled by pure spite. Their collaboration, “Neck & Wrist,” is a meeting of the minds, one that locates rap as an intersection of their profiteering dreams.

Beyond a lyric where he dubs himself “cocaine’s Dr. Seuss,” Pusha makes room for some character development here. We see some reluctant reminiscing, spurred by challenges to his dealer credentials from his former manager Anthony (Geezy) Gonzalez, and those songs bring rich narrative payoffs. On “Brambleton,” Pusha sets the record straight about his and Gonzalez’s street history and separation, drawing parallels to feuds both real and fictional. We nearly see him express something like regret on “Let the Smokers Shine the Coupes.” “The dope game destroyed my youth,” he admits, before making a quick recovery: “Now Kim Jones Dior my suits.” The album closer, “I Pray for You,” reunites Clipse for mirroring verses of brotherly loyalty. It is one of the few moments where we see Pusha express love for something more than himself or his product. But, just as it always was, his brother (who now goes by No Malice) is the more grounded of the two. In his verse—by turns, introspective, penitent, and hopeful—No Malice seems to express thoughts that Pusha never will.

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Pusha spent his Clipse years on Pharrell’s Star Trak label, and his entire solo career on Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music. “It’s Almost Dry” bridges those eras with its production. Each of the famed beat-makers produced half of the album’s songs, bringing their creative signatures to the face-off—Kanye displays sample chops that mimic classic soul, and Pharrell calibrates off-kilter, earwormy riffs that drone and buzz. In interviews, Pusha said he was looking to be produced and directed on this album, and that Pharrell sought to pull characters out of him. That last effort proved somewhat futile—Pusha’s own garish persona always seems to overshadow any role he’s given—but it wasn’t completely pointless. Attempts to coax something new out of the rapper have evidently brought greater range to his flows. The songs luxuriate in the spoils accumulated from Pusha’s peddler empire and dismiss his rivals as charlatans, and the expensive-sounding beats seem to bolster his claims. “Seein’ you rappers apply for the stimulus,” he raps memorably on “Just So You Remember.” “Livin’ a lie, but die for your images.”

On previous projects, Pusha often spoke as if rap were a front for his real business. On the 2002 track “Grindin’,” he claimed to be a “legend in two games,” but he made clear that music was the side hustle. “It’s Almost Dry” is his first album to put a bit of distance between his career as a seller and his career as a rapper. If this isn’t a valedictory, it’s something similar. His verses are more loose than piercing, concerned primarily with upward mobility and his taste for the finer things: the five-star hotel Le Meurice, the jewelry brands Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. When he raps, “Look at me, legally sellin’ dope on all of these stages,” on “Rock N Roll,” it almost feels like he’s crossed a threshold. But the lure of the old way of life never fully goes away, and he occasionally slips into the present tense. “I been gettin’ at these coins as I’m breakin’ down the brick / Make the jump to each level, Super Mario exists,” he raps later. “All the spoons that were bent, all the fumes through the vents / I don’t care what they do—this ain’t that, that ain’t this.”


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