Virginia rap duo Clipse have been wallowing creatively since the release of their second album Hell Hath No Fury in 2006. Their third, Til the Casket Drops, was their only album not fully produced by the Neptunes and the Thornton brothers were out of place as fallible beings outside of the insular coke world created by the first two albums. They’ve since diverged in artistic directions. Now passing their mid-30s, older brother Malice changed his name to No Malice and put out an album that debuted on the Billboard Gospel charts, while Pusha T has hitched his wagon to Kanye West’s burning star.
The duo appear together in 2013 on No Malice’s track “Shame the Devil,” which isn’t too far from the occasionally dancehall-sampling sparse atmospheres Pusha has been rapping over recently. It’s a song about regret and redemption, a natural progression for rappers who’ve not only rapped about, but had to live with the real life consequences of selling drugs for over a decade. Pusha T only has eight bars on the song, and defensively uses them to contend that the two are still the same men they always were, despite the new money or God. Both that awkward reconciliation of change and the newfound nuance of long-term cocaine vocation show up prominently on Pusha’s first full-length solo album, My Name Is My Name (G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam).
The album begins with the only two tracks sans featured performers, and imagines a lonely emperor of a post-apocalypse where Yeezus has nuked the Earth and Pusha is finally able to talk his shit unencumbered. By the third song, he’s lost power. When the R&B choruses he refuses to sing come out of the woodwork, the album is transported away to the Paris fashion runways via private jet, all within the current rap climate where Drake just sold 650k records in a week. There’s a Chris Brown feature that sounds like some OVO sounds(“Sweet Serenade”), songs with The-Dream and Kelly Rowland that would sound more at home with their counterparts on the singers’ recent albums (“40 Acres” and “Let Me Love You”), and a song where Push is drowned out by a better, longer Rick Ross verse and Kanye’s constant autotune warbling (“Hold On”). After the blindingly bright synths of “No Regrets,” it takes the barebones “Nosestalgia,” about the havoc wreaked by street drugs with a punch-drunk verse by Kendrick Lamar, for the album to find its core.
Penultimate track “Pain” has icy alien crooner Future perfectly complement King Push by embodying the misery of feeling nothing. The song paints the emotional fallout of the dope game over crushing taiko drums and piano keys, dramatizing Pusha’s intimacy and numbness to it. Lastly, “S.N.I.T.C.H.” is produced and featuring Pharrell Williams, proving along with P-produced “Suicide” that the old Clipse formula can still make for great songs. The acronym stands for “Sorry N***a I’m Trying to Come Home” and describes an old companion, who’s been in jail, giving up on “no snitchin’” to get his freedom back. It’s a striking portrait of shifting personal motivation over time and ends up being the most captivating listen on the album. It contains the kind of moral complexity that can make an aging drug dealer compelling after he’s overworked straight up coke rap.
The dope boy setting that Pusha created with his brother and the Neptunes can no longer contain them. It had no room for Push to walk down a catwalk in or drink Perrier-Jouët with a Piaget on his wrist, or for that matter, more religion talk than mere fire-and-brimstone imagery. Kanye West has provided Pusha T an outlet for all of his eccentricities and famous-rapper desires. But as Push tells it on “Who I Am,” he “just wanna sell dope forever.” He’s not selling drugs anymore though: “Nowadays I sell hope, what you rather I sell dope?/What I sell is a lifestyle, naked bitches on sailboats.” Whether the music he makes is good depends on how Push chooses to describe it. There’s only so many ways to say you’re selling a lot of cocaine or consuming expensive items. But the inner turmoil, including apathy, that develops over the years is fertile ground for someone who has real stories.
Pusha T makes his best music when he’s inside and expanding the universe he and his brother made on those first Clipse projects. He’s struggled to find a comfortable spot since he signed with G.O.O.D. Music, but on MNIMN he’s given space to operate with his lyricism. Kanye’s fingerprints are all over the place, mostly for the album’s good. He’s less using Push as a marionette than he is lording over him like an Orwell novel. It’s only too much when West’s voice is dripping all over a song he doesn’t have a feature on, or when Pusha displays symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome by rapping exactly like Ma$e, Yeezy’s favorite rapper. The mountain-of-white heights of early Clipse releases may never be scaled again, but there’s enough here for me to clench my teeth and fiend for the Thornton brothers to get back in the studio.