Pusha T Proclaims to Have the Best Hip-Hop Album of the Year Plus Discusses Kanye West, Drake and More
Pusha T’s 20-year rap career has been a marathon run for the ages. From bricks to billboards, grams to the Grammys, he’s still grindin’ while carrying top-shelf street rap on his back.
Interview C. Vernon Coleman II
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands soon.
It’s a chilly afternoon in early December inside an exposed brick fifth-floor photography studio off Canal Street in lower Manhattan. Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… album is blaring from a speaker. A small, assembled team including management, publicity, styling, the photo crew and a large security guard nicknamed Thanos have their eyes on Pusha T. The rapper is getting his flowers, literally. Wearing an expensive Celine ensemble and flashing a diamond-and-white gold grill, King Push poses for photos behind a botanic array of faux plants, blooms and buds in a scene that is both hood and highfalutin. “Is this art?” the Virginia Beach, Va. lyricist half-jokingly asks the photographer and his assistants for confirmation between high-powered camera flashes. He receives a collection of yeses from the group.
Since Pusha T, born Terrence Thornton, began rapping alongside his older brother Malice as the Clipse in the late 1990s, musically, it’s always been about the art. The duo released their Neptunes-produced debut album, Lord Willin’, in 2002, followed by the celebrated Hell Hath No Fury (2006) and ’Til the Casket Drops (2009), before Malice took a sabbatical from rap around 2009, leaving Push to press forward by himself as an artist signed to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music.
Push’s career has aged like Angela Bassett, with his Grammy-nominated third solo effort, Daytona, dropping in 2018—the same year he David and Goliath’d Drake during their rap battle—and culminating in Pusha’s 2022 magnum opus, It’s Almost Dry. A pure hip-hop LP released with no drama, no manufactured beef to push sales and no stunts. Just an avant-garde canvas from two of hip-hop’s greatest producers, Pharrell and Ye, with the help of a few other producers and a small selection of guest appearances. Topped with colorful coke motifs and layered with brilliant brush strokes of cinematic street rap. Impressionism at its finest.
The offering scored the Down South native his first No. 1 album at 45, an age when most MCs have been relegated to the Mesozoic Era. The consensus from critics and hip-hop is that the effort is the front-runner for rap album of the year. The Recording Academy might concur as they’ve nominated it for Best Rap Album. Pusha is convinced he created a grand masterpiece and deserves the Grammy.
No longer on G.O.O.D. Music and dealing with a contentious relationship with producer-turned-pariah Kanye West, Pusha doesn’t plan on slowing down. With a new album and mixtape already in the works, he’s also balancing the life of a husband, father to Nigel, 2, and label owner of Heir Wave Music Group. The Vincent van Gogh of blow has no problem saying why all of 2022’s best album trophies belong on his mantel. Here, Pusha T speaks on it all and more.
XXL: Are you gonna win this Best Rap Album Grammy or what?
Pusha T: Damn right. I don’t see how we can’t. I made the purest, most uncompromised rap album. At the highest level, with the highest level of production. Greatness. Beats and rhymes. I don’t think nobody beat that. I think that’s an easy go…[The Recording Academy] knew it was undeniable. I don’t care which way you cut it, man. [It’s Almost Dry] is too much. It’s too much of an event wrapped around it. I gave you the present of life. I gave you a present with a bow on it.
The music speaks for itself, but if you could give your grand pitch, what would it be?
For sure. At the same time, I’m very focused on what it is that I do. Coming in saying this is the best album of the year, no. This is the best rap album of the year because I know what I did. I nailed that. All the best album of the year talk and all that, I don’t know. That ain’t what’s pure to me. What’s pure to me is rap. In this rap space, give me mine.
You’ve been rapping for over 20 years and are critically acclaimed as a lyricist. Do you feel like you need the Grammy for any sort of full validation?
I don’t think I need it for my validation, but I do think I need it for the subgenre of street rap. People try to cheapen it because of content. This is art. And I been saying I’m the Martin Scorsese of street rap. Just putting it that way hopefully helps people see the art in it more and understand it. And understand this is a talent.
Football legend Tom Brady crowned It’s Almost Dry Album of the Year. That’s a different type of cosign.
It’s crazy, man. Street hip-hop has made it so far. I think that is a testament to articulate hip-hop, street hip-hop. It’s tastemaker hip-hop. There is taste that goes along with this that I think people recognize. They see the art and the parallels and the metaphors.
This would be one of the first street hip-hop albums to win a Grammy for Best Rap Album. How important is it to you for your brand of rap to be recognized by the mainstream in such a way?
I’m trying to win that Grammy, but I’m trying to walk. I want you to see it. People gotta see it. They need to see it. The next generation gotta see it. The streets gotta see it. They gotta understand it. This is all built from y’all. That’s the most important part to me.
How disappointed would you be if you don’t win this one?
I’ll be disappointed. No lie. I’ll be disappointed. But I’ll make another one.
On the flipside, how excited will you be if you do win it?
Listen, this is a celebration. This is a celebration that ain’t gon’ end ’til I don’t know how long. It’s a celebration for the subgenre. And I feel like that shit is super important to keep this thing going. Articulate, lyric-driven, taste-level hip-hop. Street hip-hop all at the same time. It just adds some extra legs if I bring that home.
One of the few knocks on your music is people asking, “When is he going to stop rapping about coke?”
You seem to have an extreme focus on being great at what you’re great at.
Yeah, that’s it. I’m not chasing any trends. My first record was called “I Got Caught Dealing at the Age of 1-5.” That was ’98, ’97. From there, you get “The Funeral.” From there, you get “Grindin’.” Why do I gotta change? Nobody else has to change their content. Who has changed their content? Not many.
So, fans are not gonna get anything like Drake’s Honestly, Nevermind from you?
Never and a day. Never not one day. Never.
Speaking of Drake, you are seen as the one person who slew Drake. This was after the two of you got into a hip-hop beef back in 2018. You treated that moment as another day on the job, but is there some part of you that wears that as a badge of honor?
Every time I hear a subliminal in one of his songs, it just lets me know how deep it hurt him. Because it’s been four years now. And we still talking about it. He is. I don’t. I’m cool. But every time it’s a subliminal, I’m like, Yes. It burns. It still burns. It lets me know. I love it.
Drake implied that you took it to a level where you both could never squash it. Obviously, things have been quiet. Do you think he will ever jump out the window with a direct diss towards you?
We should see. I don’t know what he’ll do. At this point, that’s contradictory. Would he jump out the window? And he wanna say I took it too far? Then he gon’ tell people. Tell the label. Tell J Prince. My God. It’s a lot. With all of that being said, it’s like I’m not interested anymore. I’m just really not.
You compared yourself to Tom Brady on “Dreamin of the Past,” saying you are getting better with time.
One thousand percent. I think I’m proving it. But I also think I’m proving that rap don’t age out. This is just on some preserving Black music and not putting all these ceilings on Black music. I feel like when you think about people who are my age and older, those are the guys who are joysticking the culture. Those are the guys who are definitely calling the shots.
A lot of rappers your age are looked at as dinosaurs, but you don’t get that stigma. Why is that?
Because I feel like I am hip-hop to the core. Hip-hop to the core ain’t just music. Hip-hop to the core is music. It’s lingo. It’s being outside and appreciating everything that’s going on in our world of hip-hop. It’s fashion. It’s me opening up a magazine and seeing what somebody is wearing and being like, that shit is fly. Let me find that shit.
That energy don’t leave me. So, it’s hard for a muthafucka to call me a dinosaur when I’m fresher [and] I know what’s coming next. When you’re actually living it, in the mix of it. I think that just comes along with the times and the social media age, too. You can’t be behind. If you want to compete. I want to compete. These are the things you have to do to compete.
Are you still currently the president of Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music?
No. No, I’m not.
It was reported that they are no longer at Def Jam Recordings.
I’m at Def Jam. I have a 50/50 venture with Def Jam. For my own music and for my label.
But you’re not tied with G.O.O.D. Music anymore in any way?
You recently came out and said you were disappointed in the hate speech that was coming from G.O.O.D. Music boss, your friend and longtime collaborator, Kanye West. Have you guys spoken since then?
When was the last time you both talked?
I was still on tour. I just expressed myself. I express myself to him a lot. He expressed his thoughts to me. And he got off the phone saying, “Thank you. I know you don’t agree with me, but you never kill me in the public. And some people can’t wait to do that.”
We started working together in 2010. So, my relationship with him has never been like everybody else’s in regard to the filter. I never had a filter with him. I’ve always spoke my mind. People gotta remember, too. This isn’t new for me, when it comes to disagreeing with him politically and things like that.
Right. You were riding with Hillary Clinton when he was doing his Donald Trump thing.
Remember, I’m the one that said the MAGA hat is the new Klu Klux Klan hood while he’s making my album. He beefing with [former President Barack] Obama. I met Obama. But it’s the same thing with him and the Drake thing. I’m going through this and that, he’s doing shows [with Drake].
How does that dynamic work?
You know what I will say about that? He knows I will do everything I gotta do and wanna do. In regard to anything that jeopardizes my look, my pride, anything. He knows that. He knows there’s no talking me off any ledges. He just can’t do it. With him knowing that. I got too much pride to ask somebody to not move a certain way. I don’t do it. But I’m going to react as Coo Coo Cal as I fucking want to when I feel like something is not going in my favor. It is what it is, man.
You guys work together so well, musically. It must affect you to see him doing this.
Oh no, for sure, man.
Are you getting texts every time he does something?
People know that I’m a very strong individual. That’s the thing. At the end of the day, shit is being said today that’s beyond disappointing.
He was on far-right radio/podcast host Alex Jones’ InfoWars podcast in December saying some wild stuff.
It’s beyond that and it’s nothing to tap dance around. It’s wrong. Period. But to me, it’s just me and him having a difference of opinion yet again. ’Cause we done had this for years.
Do you think it will get to a point where you say, “I have to wash my hands of this guy?”
He’s not speaking to me now. If you ain’t with it, you ain’t down. And I ain’t with it. I’m not budging on that. I’m not with it. I heard about this new stuff [on InfoWars]. I don’t know. It’s something that just sort of tells me he’s not well, at the same time. I will say that. It’s going to places where it’s no way to move around it.
The Young Thug/YSL RICO case is also big in the news, with authorities trying to use lyrics against them. Would your lyrics have changed if the use of lyrical evidence was prevalent in the early 2000s?
No, because I believe that even then, there was so much creativity, so much layered lyricism levels. For me, it’s always been about being creative about the life. The lyrics are a bit too layered. If you know, you know. But other than that, nothing to really pin you and peg you and put you in jail.
At the same time, I think that it’s unfortunate what those guys are going through. At the end of the day, this is art. I don’t think you can scrutinize art like that and put people in jail. Let’s hope everybody comes home.
You still live in Virginia. There is a stigma about rappers needing to leave their hometowns. You haven’t adopted that. Is it because you feel safer in Virginia?
Yeah. I do feel safe at home. I feel like I also don’t do anything at home that incites that energy. People see me. They see me amongst my people. They see us putting on for the city. Now granted, I’m not outside every day. I do contribute. And I’m hoping the people see me as more of an asset to the city and would want me to be around.
Even though you are still giving fans the same street content, you seem to be more mature. You are a husband and a dad now. How do you balance having a family and your music career at the same time?
It has made me so much more focused. Time-wise, I’m laser-focused on what I’m trying to do because I’m always trying to get back home to them. But being that they are my focus, I feel like it’s unlocked another chamber and another level of just creativity and art in it.
You get to get the freely creative [me]. One thousand percent. This just the beginning. I’m on my director shit. My imagination is endless. I can unlock chambers that I probably couldn’t have done back then. Just being entrenched in so much at that time.
What’s your favorite thing about being married and a father?
Being able to count on my wife. Count on her consistency. Count on her as a partner to where I’m lazy, she catches my slack. Again, being in the industry, being in this music game, having to sometimes be super and hyper-focused on music. I know I can turn my back and know that my house, my son, any and everything to be taken care of is taken care of.
My son is the best thing ever. He’s the best verse I’ve ever written. It’s just a discovery every day of him and him discovering himself. I just love everything about that kid. I feel like I totally understand him. It’s a different, different kind of bond. It’s priceless.
You recently said you were busy working on special projects. Does one of them happen to be your next solo album?
Definitely working on another solo album. Just gathering a whole bunch of ideas. I never really stopped working. I sort of made a three-year plan and I’m trying to follow it. We get past [the Grammys], it’s back-to-back-to-back.
Your prior album, Daytona, came out four years ago. You’ve been a person that’s never rushed the process. Is there an urgency to release a new album because of the hype off It’s Almost Dry?
No, I just think that is something that I need to do to service my base better. Because we really understand that there is a cult following that is die-hard. Our goal is to always satisfy that person. And we came to the conclusion that it would be more product.
What’s been the inspiration for this new album you are working on?
Right now, it’s no real direction. Just trying to find the music and find the energy. I been working with Pharrell. I actually went in with No I.D. as well. Steve Lacy, he came through with some shit.
You mentioned working on a couple of special projects. What’s the other one?
I’m working on a special mixtape.
Why drop a mixtape when you are at this point in your career?
It doesn’t seem like something you need to do. To have the fun I want to have. What I’m trying to do is restore the feeling in every aspect of this subgenre of music. And just of this cloth, of this taste level. I’m just trying to make people realize how viable this is. To show people that I can’t do what you do, but you definitely can’t do what I do. I have to show those differences. That’s the whole premise behind the mixtape.
Are you taking it back to We Got It for Cheap days?
If we get there, I might go to jail on that. If you can get Vol. 2 level out of me on that. Woah.
Say you win the Grammy. What is success for you on this next album?
If I win this Grammy, success for me would be doing a new Clipse album. I don’t give a fuck if the shit sold one copy. Me and him [No Malice] being back together doing [music], that checks off a lot of boxes.
So how close are you two to actually releasing a Clipse album?
I don’t know, bro. I can’t say that we are close at all. It’s up to him. I do know one thing: he’s hearing the people.
Working faster, do you think that will change anything?
Nah. To be honest with you. Lyrically, when it comes to this, I gotta be six steps ahead of whoever is next in line. So, if speeding it up makes me three steps ahead, I’m still ahead. I don’t think anybody is making street rap like me. I don’t believe that.
Buy the winter 2022 issue of XXL magazine when it hits newsstands in January of 2023 or online at the XXL store.
Read Pusha-T's cover story in the winter issue of XXL magazine, on newsstands in January 2023. Check out additional interviews in the magazine, including conversations with Freddie Gibbs, Chance The Rapper, Ab-Soul, G Herbo, DaBaby, EST Gee, Murda Beatz, Morray, Ice Spice, Jeleel!, Armani White, Destroy Lonely producer Dez Wright, singer Kiana Ledé, actor Shameik Moore, plus a look at hip-hop's love for wrestling, a deep dive into how new artists get on in hip-hop these days, the ways in which women in rap succeeded in 2022, the rapper-run podcasts the game has grown to love and a tribute to rappers we lost in 2022.