Pusha to the limit

Former Clipse member delivers dynamic, uneven debut solo album

If Virginia hip-hop has a sound, it’s Clipse. The duo of brothers Pusha T and Malice broke through nationally with 2002’s “Lord Willin’,” an album of vivid drug dealer narratives produced entirely by Pharell Williams and Chad Hugo, another Virginia Beach duo who called themselves The Neptunes. With the help of its clamorous first single “Grindin’,” “Lord Willin’” established Clipse as hometown heroes and critical darlings — streetwise artists with a futuristic edge. This adoration came to a head in 2006 when the duo released “Hell Hath No Fury,” an update on the reliable formula of punishing, metallic Neptunes production and meticulously detailed reflections on the intricacies of selling cocaine.

The brothers were also among the first hip-hop artists to release free mixtapes online — a practice that was revolutionary at the time — earning the duo a fervent internet fanbase at a time when major labels and local radio were still the genre’s main gatekeepers.

With their national profile at an all-time high, Clipse’s fourth album, “Til The Casket Drops,” made some injudicious grabs at radio hits and ultimately failed to recapture their previous album’s alluring wickedness.

Though the brothers remain friendly, Clipse has since dissolved. Malice changed his name to No Malice and became a born-again Christian and later released a memoir.

Left to carry out Clipse’s legacy solo, Pusha T signed on to Kanye West’s GOOD Music imprint, where he has released a pair spotty mixtapes that have traded slick drug-talk for blustering about the trappings of fame. He’s shown signs of life on feature-spots, namely his venomous verses on Kanye’s “Mercy” and “Runaway,” but has yet to release a project with staying power. With his first proper album, “My Name Is My Name,” Pusha T shows more than a few flashes of his old wit, but struggles to bend his implacable villainy into new shapes.

Pusha T remains an incredibly precise rapper. He hand-picks each syllable to ensure his words unspool with fluidity. Lines like “Black Ferris Bueller cutting school with his jewels on, couldn’t do wrong” display a knack for unflashy assonance without muddling the message. In the absence of Malice, he’s become doubly malicious, urgent where he was once icy. His wild-eyed delivery adds a compelling vindictiveness to his rhymes, but just as often cloaks a lack of imagination. When he’s off, as on “King Push” or “No Regrets,” he sounds like he’s rapping into the mirror, draping himself in imaginary importance and throwing mealy-mouthed barbs at anonymous foes. The strongest verses come when he revisits his days of distribution, spewing delectable snapshots and running with extended metaphors. “Gemstar razor and a dinner plate / Arm and Hammer and a mason jar, that’s my dinner date / then crack the window in the kitchen let it ventilate / ‘Cause I let it sizzle on the stove like a minute steak” he snarls on “Nosetalgia.” Pusha’s acidic crime lord persona is convincing, but it can make for monochromatic listening. “Let Me Love You,” a charming players anthem that apes the style of ‘90s rapper Ma$e, is the sole outlier, and it cuts through the album like sun through a basement window.

The production uses the bubbling minimalism of The Neptunes and the austere immediacy of Kanye’s “Yeezus” as touch points. “Yeezus” architect Hudson Mohawke lends his bloated synths and glam rock drums to “No Regrets,” while “King Push” repurposes the decaying vocal sample from Kanye’s “New Slaves.” “Suicide” sounds like it was lifted from one of Clipse’s early mixtapes, complete with a hollowed-out Neptunes beat and a knotty verse from Clipse affiliate Ab-Liva. This track, like all of the strongest here, compliments Pusha’s style with wide pockets and an air of menace. The more obvious radio attempts (“No Regrets,” “40 Acres,” “Hold On”) aim for grandiosity and drama, shades that don’t mesh with Pusha’s no-frills exactitude.
On “My Name Is My Name,” rigidity is a double-edged sword. While Pusha retains the writerly details and sardonic wit of his best work, he remains unwilling — or unable — to do anything else, despite the encouragements from his producers. He’s the rap game Tony Montana. He only has one product, but he knows how to sell it.

3/5
Standout Tracks: Numbers On The Boards, Suicide, Nosetalgia

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