1. singer of Richmond, VA -based heavy metal four-time Grammy losers lamb of god. 2. 42-year-old skateboarding, fly fishing, and bullwhipping enthusiast. 3. amateur photographer currently writing his first photo-essay book. 4. author of currently untitled memoir to be published by Da Capo/Perseus (U.S.) and Random House (everywhere else), spring 2014. 5. proud husband, son, grandson, and brother. 6. fairly righteous dude.
The beats on Pusha T’s My Name Is My Name make you want to install and then blow a set of very expensive speakers as you drive your hooptie anywhere but to work. Pusha’s flows come at you like the deadly waves that pummel his hometown of Virginia Beach every few years during hurricane season. And his lyrics? King Push is a very, very clever man with the pen, a wordsmith of such high caliber that if I were an aspiring rapper I would probably just hang up the mic and try my hand at something slightly less competitive, like knitting. Pusha T has made good on his oft-repeated boast to deliver the hip-hop album of the year: My Name Is My Name hasn’t left repeat on my truck stereo ever since I got it. It’s freakin’ awesome.
So why do I wince every time I hear it?
Because, taken literally, the lyrics are reprehensible to me. It’s the narcissistic, materialistic, chauvinistic, (and if it is indeed realistic) murderously ballistic psalm of a self-serving, allegedly coke-dealing thug in love with his puerile self and his depressingly shallow, pointless lifestyle. If this were another MC, I could write it off as standard-issue rap braggadocio. But with a member of the exceptionally talented Clipse spitting, the usual question — “How much of this is reality and how much of it is just a cautionary ‘hood tale” — gets very, very sticky. Because whenever the way-overused phrase “keeping it real” enters the official lexicon, they should put a picture of Clipse beside it. Clipse kept it fucking real, all right.
In 2007, back when I was still an active alcoholic (read: inhumanly and insanely drunk virtually 24/7) who enjoyed enhancing his buzz with illicit pharmaceuticals of all sorts, lamb of god played Hove Fest outside picturesque Arendal, Norway. My guitarist Mark and I were very excited to learn that Clipse was scheduled to play the festival the night before us, and we hoped to arrive in time to catch their set. We didn’t, but got wind of an after party just a block from our hotel, so we cruised over to say hello to our fellow Virginians. As we walked over to the Thornton brothers, I prepared to introduce myself, but Mark just whipped out his driver’s license and threw it on the table in front of them — they immediately knew we had come to represent the home team. Pusha and Malice were super-nice guys, and seemed honestly happy to see some people from home in this odd Nordic setting.
At some point in the evening, after a few beers, I vaguely remember jokily asking them, “What’s up with the wamp-wamp?” (Translation: “Where’s the cocaine?”)
Clipse might well have known the answer. A lot of rappers rhyme about being drug dealers, doing time, their homies on lock in the pen, and how damn gangsta they are, even though many of them have never seen the inside of a cell, moved any kind of weight, or busted cap one at a single, solitary ass. But Clipse rapped scarily specific stuff about being involved with cocaine kingpins. After their first two records, I began to wonder if they were completely insane. I guess they were, because in 2010 their manager Anthony Gonzales got an 82-count drug-trafficking indictment and is currently serving 32 years in prison, having admitted to distributing a half-ton of cocaine and almost a ton of marijuana throughout Virginia during the five years prior to his arrest. Several other members of their crew have gone away to the big house as well. Malice literally went crazy (you can read all about it in his book Wretched, Pitiful, Poor, Blind, and Naked) until he had a moment of spiritual clarity and not only changed his name (to No Malice) but his whole life.
After carefully listening to My Name Is My Name over and over, I can only deduce that if he’s not just making it all up, apparently Pusha T either a) still misses the old days, b) is about to recreate them any second now, or c) never left them. As he raps about the aftermath of his manager’s arrest on “40 Acres”: “You thought Tony in that cell would’ve made us timid/We found his old cell, bitch, we searchin’ through the digits/anything Spanish got me speaking Spanglish/Money is universal, that’s the only language.” Man, some people never learn. In the final lyric of the song (named, of course, after the land that freed slaves were entitled to yet never received at the end of the Civil War), he demands “I need all mine/Reparations/We growin’ poppy seeds on my 40 acres.” The new Malcolm X he certainly is not.
But, as I said before, this is in many ways an awesome album, and it sets itself apart right out of the gate with “King Push.” The beat, by a virtually unknown young producer named Sebastian Sartor, is dark, off-time, and pulses beneath Pusha’s rhymes like a stiff rake being dragged over an oddly placed garden of synth trigger pads. The arrangement is extremely compelling, not exactly radio-friendly, and right from the get-go Pusha lets the listener know he’s not compromising any of his vision for commercial appeal: “Yes, I’m King Push/I rap, nigga, ’bout trap niggas/I don’t sing hooks.” He name-drops Rage Against the Machine and calls himself the “black Zack de la Rocha,” but Zack de la Rocha is an activist musician who writes songs that address social injustice. My Name Is My Name, no matter how brilliantly presented, is about how rad it is being an (ex?) coke dealer who raps. That’s pretty much it. And if Pusha doesn’t stretch the boundaries of his subject matter pretty soon, he will be (oh God, it’s too good, so pardon the pun) trapped with the “coke rap” image.
Which might be a sore subject for Mr. Thornton, who recently groused to Rolling Stone on the eve of this album’s release, “You know, they give you this label of ‘coke rap.’ Once they do that, they take away every ounce of creativity that you put into the verse. It’s a metaphor for the streets. Every artist has a base which they revert to. Mine just happens to be cocaine.” Yes, it’s true; most of us who write lyrics have a particular bed we like to lie in, a subject that fits us oh so well — like your favorite worn-out pair of old shorts, it’s very easy and comfortable to slip into. But eventually the bottom wears out, becomes threadbare, and you start to show your hairy ass. It might be a well toned ass, but no one but your girl/boyfriend wants to see that thing, and even they will get sick of looking at it after a while. And while Pusha’s lyrics are undeniably well written, no matter how metaphorical they are, they’re still primarily about… dealing cocaine. Out of the album’s 12 tracks, 11 talk up the dope game, with the exception of the token love song entitled “Let Me Love You,” which should really be called “Just Shut Up and Fuck Me Because I’m Rich.”
I don’t want every rapper to be a KRS-One or a Chuck D, laying down the hammer of conscious rhymes, educating and elucidating all kinds of righteous subjects every 16 bars. While I certainly enjoy some of that stuff, it can get a little heavy-handed at times, especially when you just want to get some booty-shaking poppin’ at a party or just want to cruise in your car, feeling the vibe of the city at night. I certainly don’t want to be the arbiter of anyone else’s morality, because I don’t like anyone judging mine. I also know (gasp, prepare yourselves) that not all drug dealers, even the ones who sling the hard stuff, are evil people out to destroy society. I know some coke dealers who happen to be really loving, kind, people. They are just trying to get by and provide for their families despite the limited opportunities that have been presented them. But all of them, without fail, talk about getting out of the dope game as soon as they can. Being a coke dealer is dangerous, annoying, and it almost always ends in one of two ways: death or prison. This is the truth, and I’ve witnessed both outcomes for people I know.
But have you ever seen a crack baby? Or a newborn strung out on heroin? I have. Somewhere along the line, a drug dealer was involved in fucking up that kid’s life before they were even born. That’s the real end result of the dope game, folks: babies born already dying to suck a glass dick. That’s one thing about this album that’s rather confusing and even a bit infuriating to me: Pusha is certainly smart enough to know what the effects of hard drugs are on people, even going so far as to show a bit of remorse from time to time, so he’s not as completely “unapologetic” as he claims in “40 Acres.” When you hear back-to-back lines like “Selling hard rock, fuck who I offended/I was a goner, punished by karma” delivered with first an undeniable sneer then softening a bit, you might wonder if you’re listening to two very different people. Other times he seems to absolutely glorify in an egomaniacal (bordering at times on misanthropic) way in his success and the way he arrived there — I mean, the man does sell a line of t-shirts that say “Everything Is Pusha T.” Maybe he’s trying to say that Pusha T is everything, i.e., both bad and good. I dunno. But I do know that one has to grow a bit cold-hearted in order to make a dangerous and illegal living selling a product that kills so many people in such an ugly way. And that’s why everything is Pusha T — because there is nothing, and no one, else.
Why in God’s name would anyone with an ounce of sense continue to glamorize such a shitty profession?
As the singer of a heavy metal band, I’m intimately familiar with people having preconceived notions of what my genre of music is trying to convey. A glance at some of my band’s album covers could quite possibly convince the casual observer that we are an apocalypse-obsessed, war-mongering, death-cult-worshipping bunch of malevolent misanthropes, when nothing could be further from the truth. Yet darkness is undeniably a common theme in metal, and is expressed in many different ways, from the fantasy gore-flick-inspired lyrics of bands like Cannibal Corpse (some of the nicest guys you will ever meet), to the visual, lyrical, and olfactory aesthetic of genuine evil-loving, Satan-worshipping Scandinavian black metal like Watain (they even literally smell like death — this is no exaggeration) to bands like mine, who write about the more unpleasant aspects of our modern society as a warning to think critically about how we as a culture are failing. (At least this is how I hope my lyrics are received). Most folks don’t really see beyond the darkness of metal lyrics, and hip-hop has historically been condemned the same way, at least since N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton came out and virtually overnight popularized the genre of gangsta rap, placing almost all rap music under the scrutiny of the mainstream media (and even the federal government) for a while.
The standard, time-tested reply of rap artists to criticisms of street hip-hop has always been that it is merely an honest reflection of the environment that birthed it, and that if people want there to be rap songs that aren’t about violent ghetto lifestyles, then we as a society need to do something about the marginalization of minorities and the inequality in our system that created these ghettos and helps keep people living in them. I understand this rationale perfectly, because as long as we keep on destroying the environment and each other with pollution, wars over oil, and our society’s growing disconnect from any sense of personal responsibility and accountability, then I will write unpleasant-sounding songs about these topics. I prefer a darker slice of life for lyrical subject matter, and so does Pusha T — it’s far more exciting to write about, that’s for sure, so we have that in common. But Pusha’s lyrics make me wonder how transformative his music really is — how much is introspective reflection and how much is blatant celebration of a definitely dark and dangerous world?
I used to listen to Clipse and ask my wife “How in the fuck can they write song after song about slinging coke and still be so awesome?” We decided it was all in the skill of the lyrical presentation — there are endless metaphors so clever and catchy it’s ridiculous. (They are from Virginia, after all.) But where Clipse seemed to present a fairly balanced picture of the dope game, Pusha’s solo record rarely gives a nod to the darker side of street life. He does narrate a tale about possible legal repercussions in “Hold On,” but with the first line, he’s already ruined any sympathy we might have for him: “I sold more dope than I sold records.” (Seeing that Clipse moved over 500,000 units of their album Lord Willing, that’s a whole lot of yay, bruh.)
All beefs aside, Pusha shines on this album like a million-watt lighthouse bulb. His rhymes never sound forced, even when he’s moving with great speed from citing Nobel Prize-winning literature to ’80s pop culture within the space of three lines — who else can start a verse (in “Nosetalgia”) with a reference to Doctor Zhivago, move appropriately (since the book was banned in Russia upon its publication) to quoting Rocky IV Russian bad guy Ivan Drago, and wind up in the ’90s gangster morality flick, Boyz n the Hood in less than fifteen seconds and not sound like they are trying way too hard? His flow is natural, but smart — I’m not saying that hard work doesn’t pay off, and Push clearly works hard on his stuff, but there is such a thing as talent, and he obviously has it in spades. It’s really just too bad that his beam seems to steer mainly towards shipwreck shoals. There are several guest MCs on the album, but I don’t even feel like mentioning them, because Pusha T just crushes them like bugs underfoot — it’s flat-out embarrassing, and I’m a fan of most of them. Although Kendrick Lamar absolutely kills it on “Nosetalgia” — the man is on fire, even breaking out a vocal tone I’ve never heard him use before. The album’s closer, “S.N.I.T.C.H.” (an amazing acronym thought up by Pharrell — Google it), is actually the most lyrically thought-provoking song, allegedly a true story about an incarcerated associate who decided to roll over on mutual friends in order to cut his time. Pusha comes off as sorrowful, not ghetto-dogmatic, at his friend’s conversion. It’s actually touching, and a great wrap for the record.
I haven’t had a hip-hop album make me really think about the actual artist himself this much since Eminem’s insanely good The Marshall Mathers LP. Em’s dark psychic battle was masterfully (albeit messily) strewn about in a buffet for the listener to chew and digest, making me wonder “What is this dude actually like? Is he really this screwed up?” But My Name Is My Name comes across as more of a force-feeding, like a goose being fattened up for foie gras — the end result is delicious if you can manage to forget (or just don’t care) what goes into making it. At times it doesn’t leave much to the imagination, as Pusha’s lines are as blunt as the album title; in fact, it feels like it’s missing something… or someone. Maybe Push needs No Malice’s yin to his yang, for the two constantly cite each other in their work even now. I’m looking forward to the new Clipse record.
In the meantime, I’m stuck with the hip-hop album of the year, a record I love to hate and hate to love. My Name Is My Name has made me think, and I can’t ask much more of a record.