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Few rappers land on their feet as reliably as Pusha T, who has been weathering career setbacks and emerging stronger for them since the earliest days of Clipse, his duo with his older brother Malice. Although the group’s first album, Exclusive Audio Footage, was shelved by Elektra Records when its first single failed to catch the charts, its eventual 2002 debut for Arista Records, Lord Willin’, was an instant commercial hit, thanks in part to exceptional production from the then-white-hot Neptunes. More label difficulties, this time with Jive Records, dogged Clipse’s follow-up, Hell Hath No Fury, but when that album was finally released in 2006 through the duo’s own Re-Up Records, it was roundly hailed as one of the great rap records of its time, a masterpiece of lurid coke-rap minimalism.
Last year brought more uncertainty. After Clipse’s longtime manager Anthony “Geezy” Gonzalez was sentenced to three decades in prison for drug trafficking, Malice put Clipse on hiatus to write and tour behind an autobiography detailing his renewed Christianity, Wretched, Pitiful, Poor, Blind And Naked. Although the timing was a surprise, Pusha T’s solo career nonetheless took shape quickly. A fateful invite to join Kanye West's recording sessions for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy led to a home on West’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint, where this week the rapper will release his commercial solo debut, Fear Of God II: Let Us Pray. In advance of its release, Pusha T spoke with The A.V. Club about the new album, those storied Dark Twisted Fantasy sessions, and why his style of street rap will never go out of style.
The A.V. Club: You’ve said that the decision to go solo was brought on by Malice’s book hiatus, but was it something you had ever considered doing before?
Pusha T: Yeah, we definitely always toured with the idea of doing solo projects just to expand the Re-Up brand, but it was sort of thrust upon me when Malice said he wanted to write his book.
AVC: He hadn’t given you any heads-up beforehand?
PT: No. I had actually asked him, “Yo, are you ready to start the new album? Let’s get rocking on it.” And he was like, “No. I’m gonna write this book right now. Don’t you want to do a solo album?” [Laughs.]
AVC: So he put the idea in your head.
PT: Oh, 100 percent, Jack!
AVC: It seems like you signed with G.O.O.D Music really soon after that, though. Had you had connections there for a while?
PT: Man, I didn’t have a damn thing over there, except just the relationship that me and ’Ye had had, and that was just because he was a big fan of Hell Hath No Fury, and fan of the Clipse. I performed at his birthday at the Louis Vuitton store, and he performed with me for Diesel or some store, with me and my brother, when we did “Kinda Like a Big Deal” from the Til The Casket Drops album. And you know, just in passing, man, it was just always good vibes. So one day I was in California and Rick Ross called me and was like, “Yo, I don’t know what you’re doing now, but you need to come to Hawaii.” And I was like, “I’m in Cali right now,” and he was like, “That’s good, you’re close.” He said I needed to come to Hawaii to be a part of this album, and then ’Ye gets on the phone and is like, “Yo, you should come out here.” And I said, “All right, but I’ve got a show to do.” He said, “That’s cool. You go do your show, and I’m going to London, and when you get back and I get back, we’ll chill in Hawaii. We’ll just chill for a while and see what we come up with.” And so I go to Hawaii for a weekend and end up staying a month. I mean, it was a long time. I had shows and all types of shit to do in between, and it just ruined those plans. [Laughs.] My frequent flyer miles were totally and utterly ridiculous.
AVC: During that stay in Hawaii, did you ever feel like you were being auditioned for a possible spot on G.O.O.D. Music?
PT: Nah. I was coming out there because he just wanted me to hear his album. He was like, “Listen, this is a real hip-hop work to me, and I feel like you embody hip-hop and I want you to hear this, and if there’s anything you like, hop on it, and if it fits, we’ll keep it.” So we listened to the records, and as soon as I heard “Runaway,” I was like, “I want to be on that.” I wrote it like five times, and he kept it. And I had already heard the leak of “So Appalled” with just him on it, and I was like, “Man, this is the epitome of hip-hop to me,” and he was like, “Well, I don’t know if I’m going to keep it on the album.” And I was like, “Please don’t do that! Do not make that mistake! Please put it on the album. Everybody needs to hear that record and know what it is and understand that it’s a hip-hop joint.” It’s like, why would you take that off? And he ended up keeping it.
AVC: After that, did you feel like a part of the family?
PT: Yeah. I was just there, and we were hanging out and kicking it. Everything musically starts with a conversation with ’Ye, honestly. You know, our conversations, we were just in line with each other. We’d be talking about relationships, and that would turn into a song. We just had this fun time, man. It was a great creative process out there. And my manager and them just got to talking, like, “Look man, let’s officialize this.” And we did, and I’ve been riding with the team ever since.
AVC: Are there resources available to you on G.O.O.D. Music that weren’t available to you on the labels you’ve been at?
PT: Hmmm. [Long pause.] You know, it’s just the perks of being involved and being in the family of a musical powerhouse like ’Ye. So of course it’s helped me business-wise, and of course it’s helped my visibility a lot. But you know, I come from the Star Trak family, and that’s the Neptunes, one of the biggest production duos ever, and Pharrell is one of the most influential guys. That doesn’t happen twice with people, you know? So let’s say this: Me being a part of Star Trak, and then having that happen again and being with G.O.O.D. Music? It’s just like, wow.
AVC: You’ve caught some lucky breaks.
PT: Man, that’s the best way to say it! I have caught some lucky breaks. [Laughs.] I mean, I’m good a little bit, too, but I have caught some lucky breaks.
AVC: With Fear Of God II, were there themes or sounds that you wanted to explore that you felt you couldn’t with Clipse?
PT: No. I mean, I really used [the mixtape] Fear Of God as my introduction to the world. I really tried to treat it like I’m reintroducing myself to you guys. I really wanted to establish the fact that I’m coming out of a group, and I am worthy of a whole album. I wanted to establish the fact that I’m respected by my peers, which are probably your favorite rappers—that’s where the features on the record came into play. And I also wanted to show that me, my verses, and my lyrics, and just my musicality, it spans from generation to generation. The new kids, the toddlers, the Meek Mills, the French Montanas, all the way to the 50 Cents and, you know, the Kanyes and the Juicy Js. It can go through all of that. I can survive and be top tier with all of those levels.
AVC: Were any of those things ever in question?
PT: No. I don’t feel it was ever in question. I’m just attacking this project like I’m a new artist, because I feel you’ve got to prove yourself every time.
AVC: One of the lines on this record that a lot of people are going to focus on is on the track “What Dreams Are Made Of,” when you say “hip-hop bores me…”
PT: It does! It bores me senseless! I mean, I’m not bored by myself, or by the people I listen to, but the majority of people that I listen to don’t put out music very often. So it fucking bores me. Like, if I could listen to André 3000 every day, I wouldn’t be bored. If I had André 3000 putting out verses like Joe Blow every week on the fucking Internet, I wouldn’t be bored. If I could have Jay-Z verses every day, if I could have Kanye verses every day, I wouldn’t be bored. But so much music is just so safe and so uninspiring. It does bore me, it really does. And I’m from a different time. It’s like growing up on gangster movies, and then having to watch fucking after-school specials. Because that’s what I feel like. I feel like hip-hop is a fucking after-school special right now. It’s real safe. It’s all soft and sensual and shit. There’s no edge. And I don’t even understand some of the stories. The stories, it’s like, “Where are these people even coming from right now?”
AVC: Is it that hip-hop has gotten too preachy, or that it’s boring?
PT: Nah, it’s not preachy. It’s boring. It’s like, “This just isn’t a story that I relate to, bud.” You know what’s funny? Hip-hop is something that always started in the streets, right? Always. Like you know, it was a street form of music. Then after that you get “The Message,” Grand Master Flash just telling the street story. You’ve got all of the trends that were started by street legends, real street legends, and then were adopted by rappers. And now to me, rap is just getting all safe and all clean. Now the most edgy thing you hear about is, you know, “I had sex with your girl.” Well, that shit doesn’t bother me; get the fuck out of here.
AVC: Why do you think rap has gotten so tame?
PT: I don’t know. I really don’t know. Maybe the players in it just aren’t from that same world anymore.
AVC: Does that make you feel like an outsider, since you come from that world?
PT: No. I don’t feel like an outsider, because I feel that what I do doesn’t go away. What I do, that stays. There’s always that dynamic in the streets, it’s always there. It doesn’t go anywhere. That energy? That’s the energy that runs the world. That street energy is what runs everything. Everybody is looking for that energy. That street energy doesn’t go anywhere, man. And everybody wants it.
AVC: Does Malice feel the same way, though? From his book, it seems like he’s distancing himself from that street energy.
PT: Yeah. You know, Malice has. I think he has. I think with that book, he was at a point where he was like, “I’ve been a part of all of this, and I want you to know my true thoughts, and my true feelings, and my trials and tribulations, my ups and downs, and know that it hasn’t always been good to me.” But that’s always been Malice, even musically. He’s always been the conscience of the two of us. You have to remember, too, that Malice is five years older than me. In five years, I may want to distance myself. Who knows?
AVC: What would you do if that happened? Those street themes are such a big part of your identity.
PT: I don’t know. I just know that whatever it is that I do, I’m going to be good at it, and successful at it. I’m never going to struggle. I’m not going through any of that shit. I’m a winner, man.
AVC: You still have plans for another Clipse record down the line, right?
PT: Hell yeah.
AVC: How do you think Malice’s book is going to change your dynamic?
PT: It’s not. I feel like it’s going to be great, because people have always gotten consequential verses from Malice. They’ve always gotten the verse that tells the good, the bad, and the ugly, the verse that tells you, “I know I shouldn’t be doing this, but I am, I’m sorry, Father, forgive me.” [Laughs.] His verses have always been of that dynamic.
AVC: Does that free you artistically, having somebody else be the moral center so you don’t have to be?
PT: Well, I’m just not as good at it as he is. He’s really good at it. What’s so funny is, I feel with doing this solo project, I’ve gotten to tap into some of that, and as soon as I do—as soon as I tap into something introspective or something that’s bare-bones true—people tweet that line. They’ll tweet that line all day long. As soon as I drop something, they embrace that line, and it’s like, “Wow, this is the type of love you get for lines like this? Maybe I need to be in this space more often.”