Nearly four years after dropping what may have been the year’s most celebrated rap album in Daytona, Pusha T’s inimitable rap voice and unstoppable pen have returned alongside some absolute legends. I’ve long been of the opinion that you can say the same thing about Pusha T as many people say about pizza – even when he’s bad, he’s still good – simply because there’s almost nobody who can come close to matching his absolute level of conviction in the booth and creativity when it comes to hyperspecific lyrical mic-drop moments. While every Pusha T album, save for the brief Daytona, has its share of slight misfires, there’s always enough top-tier production work and quotable lyrics that’ll stick in rotation for the rest of the year to make up for it. It’s Almost Dry is no exception, and with Kanye West and Pharrell Williams splitting time behind the boards, you already know what you’re getting here. Yeeuughh.
Pusha T has always been able to make hairs stand on ends due to being one of the most tangibly threatening rappers in the game, but we’ve never really known exactly what he was talking about until an opening track like “Brambleton.” Calling out his old manager for betrayal, Pharrell kicks the proceedings off with a watery, echoing synth melody and heavy boom-bap percussion as he unleashes some unsettling, drawn-out falsetto notes in the back. When Pusha T drops a Godfather allusion while talking about you, it’s best that you run – the track certainly makes for a powerful opening and a welcome back to Pusha’s world. Plus, “Black Rari, white hood, make it a race thing” is at least a quadruple entendre. The energy only shifts to a higher gear with “Let the Smokers Shine the Coupes,” which must genuinely be one of the best beats of Pharrell’s career. Turning what sounds like a choral vocal sample into a distorted squeal in the back like a car pulling out of the lot, the break in the middle where it transforms into piano essentially functions like Pharrell discovering the beautiful in the ugly and revealing that they’re one and the same – something that couldn’t be more perfect for a Pusha T project. As his fun, shuffling flow lines up with Pharrell’s heavy kick drums, there’s magic in how cool and collected he sounds on the surface despite every syllable dripping with condescension, confidence and an evil grin.
Not to be outdone, Kanye West drops his first beat onto the project with “Dreamin of the Past,” bringing his chipmunk soul style back with a flip of Donny Hathaway’s cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Man.” The retro piano rolls and brighter melodies on display don’t feel like it would be Pusha’s usual wheelhouse, but it somehow just serves to elevate his mob boss persona with a regal-sounding backdrop. Despite a brief and truly awkward verse from West himself at the end, Pusha takes the opportunity to sound even more expressive than usual. He also sings a couple lines on the chorus so surprisingly well that it wasn’t even correctly attributed to him on lyric websites for a couple days. On the other side of the coin, sandwiched in between the project’s two singles is the completely minimalistic “Just So You Remember.” With little more than a basic, clicking beat and a meandering bassline, Push shares time with a chilling sample as he delivers some of his best lyrical moments through gritted teeth and makes sure anyone listening doesn’t forget his past and his pedigree. The track certainly accomplishes its aims. Of the tracks we’ve heard, “Neck & Wrist” still stands out as one of the biggest diversions from typical Pusha T fare with a shimmering beat from Pharrell and Pusha trading more laid-back and casual flex-heavy verses with Jay-Z as they sit on their respective thrones, while “Diet Coke” can be added to his roster of go-to classics with its engaging cascade of a piano-backed beat and top-tier punchlines.
Despite all of the great sample flips across this project, it’s hard to imagine that any project this year will have one that tops Kanye’s use of Beyonce’s “1+1” on the track “Rock N Roll.” Unfortunately the track that resulted in the infamous Kid Cudi tweet explaining that the song was from an older recording session when he and West were still friends, it’s sad to hear how much joy was clearly in the room when they all got together – Cudi’s hook in particular sounds deliriously giddy. West is a master at programming chords that build tension and energy but are simultaneously so uplifting, and it must come from his gospel background – something that he exercises even more explicitly later on in the album. Pusha T drops a bar about levitating and this track sounds like it, and West comes through with a melodic verse that still directly addresses his rather unforgivable recent behaviour, but he sounds so distraught yet confident in a positive future that you begin to sympathize with him. The chilling track “Call My Bluff” features a distorted, ascending bassline straight from a twisted carnival and Pusha T’s calmest vocal performance on the album while casually threatening to send in the goons. Picking a unique, playful-sounding rhyme to finish the bar on in each verse, he displays some of his most impressive writing here too by keeping the rhyme scheme going for full verses. Buried near the end, the track “Scrape It Off” is a bizarre collaboration that Pusha T is barely on. Trying to mix his style with the cartoonish synths of a Lil Uzi Vert was an ambitious and admirable choice, but it ends up sounding more like an Uzi track, and he’s certainly not on the same level lyrically.
Before the final, cinematic moment, Bathing Ape founder Nigo collaboration “Hear Me Clearly” and “Open Air” are two of the shortest tracks here that essentially both just feature more classic Pusha T moments, but truthfully who could get tired of hearing his voice go on and on dropping bar after bar? The project finishes with “I Pray For You,” a clearly Kanye-produced track that invites Labrinth and Pusha’s brother Malice on board to rhyme over a church organ. It’s an appropriately decisive closer, Labrinth sounding stellar in the opening moments and Malice, like a deeper-voiced Pusha, honestly out-rapping his brother to close it out.
As Pusha T begins to get up there in age, hopefully we won’t have to wait another 4 years before getting to hear him demolish beats once again. Every time he drops, the game needs to be on watch, because it’s clear that his skills to deliver the more electrifying of hip-hop thrills are nowhere near running dry.
Favourite Tracks: Let The Smokers Shine The Coupes, Dreamin of the Past, Rock N Roll, Diet Coke, Call My Bluff
Least Favourite Track: Scrape It Off