First, before we talk about anything else—before we talk about the audacious cover art, the lyrics, or the music—we need to talk about how it is nothing short of a minor miracle that Pusha-T’s proper sophomore album, Daytona, finally saw the light of day.
Once called King Push, Pusha, born Terrence Thornton, had been teasing and promoting the project since the days of his debut solo effort, 2013’s My Name is My Name. At that time, he claimed it was going to arrive the following year—however, 2014 came and went, and King Push was nowhere to be found.
The next year almost wound up the same way, though as 2015 was heading to a conclusion, Pusha released Darkest Before Dawn, an effort he referred to as a “prelude” to King Push, collecting an uneven (and unfortunately forgettable) ten songs recorded for King Push that were deemed wrong for the record, but he didn’t want to scrap them entirely.
It’s worth mentioning that, at this point, Pusha had also announced a tour in support of Darkest Before Dawn, with an April 2016 stop in Minneapolis that seemed too good to be true, and with some minor hesitations, bought tickets for, only to have the show canceled due to Pusha’s “recording commitments” a month before the show date arrived.
Outside of releasing a few one-off singles like “Drug Dealers Anonymous,” that same year, Pusha spent a bulk of it campaigning in support of Hilary Clinton, and discussing prison reform.
On stage last year at the Minnesota annual hip-hop festival Soundset, after arriving much later than anticipated for his set, Pusha assured the crowd that King Push was coming in 2017.
King Push is, truthfully, nowhere to be found. That album is long gone; now called Daytona, Pusha claims the title change came due to the fact the original title no longer represented the overall message of this body of work.
Daytona is one of five ‘hand produced’ records that Kanye West promised to deliver on this summer—given West’s track record with the botched roll out Life of Pablo, when he rattled off five albums and five release dates, I really did not think he’d be able to pull it off.
Arriving as an incredibly slim seven-song album, Daytona is both extremely urgent and unrelenting in its nature; I mean, it has to be. Seven songs—and none of them are over four minutes in length?
With no advance single to prepare people for what to expect, and only snippets of audio available from Pusha’s Instagram stories as he premiered the album at a listening part on May 23rd, as a listener, and a fan, you had to have a lot of faith in both Pusha and West that this was going to deliver.
Daytona does deliver—however, it’s not a perfect album. I mean, in retrospect, as much as I loved My Name is My Name in 2013, it’s not a perfect album either. It gets weighed down at times by some less successful songs, but here, that’s not really an option. There are songs here that are not as great as others, but due to the brevity of the album as a whole, as well as the running time of some of these, it’s almost all too easy to forgive and look past what doesn’t work.
In interviews, Pusha had talked about how many times this album had been recorded and scrapped, only for him to begin again, so in a sense, Daytona was a make or break situation.
Not for him as an artist, but for the idea of that he would be able to put together seven songs with West behind the boards in a relatively short amount of time, and create something they’d both be happy with.
If anyone had something to prove from Daytona, it’s West—both as a producer, as well as a ‘persona,’ if you will; it will take a very, very long time for him to undo the confusion and damage he has done as of late via his Twitter account and his unpredictability in interviews, but if there’s one thing that Daytona has going for it, it’s the music itself—even on some of the less captivating songs, like the late arriving “Santaria,” West punctuates a long, Spanish-spoken interlude, with snare hits that ring out like gunfire.
Stylistically, a bulk of West’s production is similar to his Yeezus-era cut and paste aesthetic—meaning when that kind of thing was really working for him. A number of these tracks are reminiscent of the jittering, off-kilter nature of his work on Pusha’s “Numbers on The Board,” a West produced track from My Name is My Name. And it should come as no surprise that many of the beats are dark, or even unsettling sounding; yes, Daytona is a luxury rap and a coke rap record (but of course), but there is a menacing nature coursing through all seven songs, and that is thanks to West’s production, but also to Pusha himself as a lyricist, but more importantly, as a performer.
For all 20 minutes, Pusha and West barely let up.
Opening with skittering percussion, Pusha begins breathlessly firing without warning on the album’s celebratory, bombastic first track, “If You Know, You Know.” While lyrically glorifying the cocaine trade, the beat structures itself around a guitar lick lifted from “Twelve O’clock Satanial” by Air—not the lite rock band, a somewhat reserved sounding beat, and a world-inspired vocal (similar to what West used on his own “Famous” two years ago) chopped up and inserted in.
“If You Know” leads right into another one of the album’s more successful tracks—“The Games We Play,” finding West cutting up a funk-inspired horn blasts, a slow and steady beat, and an eccentric guitar riff that resonates while Pusha continues to dig deeper into his cocaine tales.
Musically speaking, even when Daytona heads into slightly less interesting or less successfully executed material, there’s still something interesting or compelling happening in each song: The cavernous piano sample in the aptly titled “Hard Piano;” the seamless integration of “I Can’t Do Without You”” a song recorded in 1969 by soul singer George Jackson, into the refrain of “Come Back Baby”; the eerie, distended sample that begins “What Would Meek Do?”; and the disembodied voice from The 24-Carat Black’s “I Want to Make it Up” that courses through the claustrophobic closing track, “Infrared.”
Lyrically, there are, of course, countless references and metaphors to cocaine dealing.
I mean, even though it’s only a seven-song album, you can lose count. Some of those are clever, and some of them are just blatant; however, there are also impressive lines that stand out above the rest, that either catch you off guard, or make you chuckle out loud: “I’m top five and all of them Dylan,” taken from the West featuring “What Would Meek Do?” “I am your Ghost and Rae/This is my Purple Tape—save up for rainy days,” from “The Games We Play”; the surprising “The rooftop can host a paint and sip for 40,” from “Hard Piano”; “Season my sauce like Zatarain’s,” from “Come Back Baby”; and the bow to greatness from “Infrared”—
“Remember Will Smith won the first Grammy? And they ain’t even recognize Hov until ‘Annie.’”
For all the good things that Daytona has going for it, even with its short length, it is not a perfect record.
Upon my first listen Daytona, one lyric that made me wince arrives during the first verse of “Hard Piano.” “Never trust a bitch who finds love in a camera; she will fuck you, then turn around and fuck a janitor,” Pusha begins—and that’s not the problem. The problem comes two lines later:
“I won’t let you ruin my dreams, or Harvey Weinstein the kid/Good morning, Matt Lauer—can I live?”
At face value, this arrives as problematic criticism at the “#MeToo” movement, though Pusha himself, in an interview published on Pitchfork four days after the release of Daytona, claims it isn’t—“Hell no,” he said. “That’s not something that even really crossed my mind.” He goes on later to later say that he’s not with “none of that shit,” though the full quotes themselves don’t seem contradictory to those statements, they do, in a way, dance around the real issue.
Pusha also defends this lyrical choice as ‘speaking of current events,’ and while the outing of sexual predators is certainly something historical, there’s something about name dropping Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein that seems like this isn’t going to age well—like it is so of the times that it isn’t going to transcend.
The same can be said about another, nearly fatal flaw, which arrives in “What Would Meek Do?,” a song that features a guest verse from Kanye West himself.
West, now a magnet for controversy, completely removes any kind of timelessness from the song by opening his verse with a reference to the piss take of a track he released at the end of April, “Lift Yourself.” He then goes on to reference his Make Donald Drumpf Again ballcap, and his once secret addiction to opioids. And while it is nice to hear West actually kind of rapping again (whatever he was doing on “’Ye VS The People” was certainly not rapping), this too falls prey to the problem of being simply too contemporary to even make it out of 2018 without already sounding dated.
Daytona’s cover art has been a source of even more controversy.
Allegedly changed at the very last minute, the image used is a photograph taken in the mid-2000s of Whitney Houston’s bathroom, and published in the National Enquirer. Licensing the photo cost an apparent $85,000, which West offered to pay for out of his own pocket. Upsetting to Houston’s family as well as her fans, the photo, out of that context, is a fascinating, dark image—brand names obscured, it depicts what the tabloid described at the time, as a ‘drug den.’ And while Daytona is a dark album at times, for something that could easily be called ‘luxury rap’ (and also coke rap), I guess I am failing to see the connection of why this photograph needed to be used.
In the wake of Daytona, Pusha has also reignited his feud with Drake—attacking the rapper and singer with lines in the album’s closing track, “Infrared,” regarding Drake’s reported usage of ghostwriters. Drake, in turn, released a diss track shortly after Daytona’s release, claiming Pusha’s tales of cocaine dealing are greatly exaggerated.
That is one thing that you’re left thinking as Daytona runs its very short course. Pusha-T has made no attempt to hide his drug dealing past—it was the basis of the first two albums he recorded with his brother, Malice (now No Malice after being born again) under the name Clipse—one of which, Hell Hath No Fury, is an untouchable coke rap classic. However, Pusha, now 41, the president of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D Music, a successful rapper in his own right—how connected is Pusha to the drug game at this point? How much of these aggrandizing lyrics are real, how much of it is what could be called ‘creative non-fiction,’ and how much of it is fabricated?
And how much of that really matters?
In a sample West used five years ago on Yeezus, we heard the expression “He’ll give us what we need, it may not be what we want.” Gestating for over four years, this may not be the album Pusha wanted to make, but in teaming with West and creating something urgent, volatile, and breathless in a very, very short amount of time, it’s the album he needed to make. And for us, the listeners, this may not be the follow up to My Name is My Name that we wanted—maybe it’ll take time to reach that point.
With each subsequent listen, I find more things to appreciate about Daytona, so in the end, maybe this, for right now, is what we needed.
Kevin Krein is a Minnesota based writer, and has been operating the award winning music blog Anhedonic Headphones since January 2013. For nearly as long, he’s been contributing to Bearded Gentlemen; and for nearly as long, he wrote “The Bearded Life” column for the Southern Minn Scene magazine. He currently writes “The Column of Disquiet” for the recently launched Next Ten Words, and his writing has appeared on Spectrum Culture and in River Valley Woman.
He is a vegan, a huge jerk, and above all else, a cool rabbit dad.