Pusha T is to coke references what Larry David is to absurd social situations: He finds new and interesting ways to revitalize disquieting things that should have jumped the shark a long time ago. There are only so many ways you can invoke that houseware/cocaine-prep staple, Pyrex, and talk about how you’re more unstoppable in the kitchen than Bobby Flay. But for 20 years now, King Push has made high art out of discussing the myriad ways he can cut a brick with more finesse than Michael Khan cuts a film — all with humor, pathos, and not a little remorse.
Those regrets make Pusha’s music so vital, in that he gives you the full spectrum. Solo cuts like “Everything That Glitters,” and the mournful “Nightmares,” with his brother and Clipse partner, No Malice, give you the insider’s view of the life of a drug dealer — the high, lows, triumphs, and tragedies, revealing the frayed layers of the soul of a man who’s done some decidedly soulless work. It’s Almost Dry, Pusha’s fourth solo album, adds levity to his troubled-conscious colloquies, presenting a well-balanced portrait of a complex man with some serious burdens on his heart.
What always separated Pusha from other coke rappers was the gravity with which he approached his art. His classics with his brother as well as his solo cuts are full of outré one-liners that land with an irrefutable ruthlessness, making his contemporaries seem like jokesters in comparison. On “Drug Dealers Anonymous,” when he boasts, “My brick talk is more than obvious, it’s ominous,” the blackhearted certainty of his tone seems to embody the multiform disgust conveyed in his signature “Ughk!” ad-lib: His go-to expression — generally uttered after an impossibly coldblooded bar about the drug trade — could also imply a legit queasiness about it.
Though he’s lightened up a bit, some of that trademark viciousness is still on display here. Steely, sneering, defiant, and serious as an old-world Sicilian vendetta, Pusha opens “Dreamin’ of the Past” with an impish observation that “there’s levels, there’s layers.” And there’s something edgy and cinematic about the way he scoffs over Kanye West’s raucous, soul-infused track, spitting, “If we weren’t bagging up the work, there wouldn’t be no dishes, be no Christmas, mistletoe/Be no kisses/Made a way for ourselves, we ain’t need no wishes, hah!”
There’s an ironical, double-edged quality to that “hah” at the end — it’s as if Pusha’s making light of his past misdeeds when you know he’s not. He’s talking himself up to give you insight into a part of the game that sometimes makes his stomach turn. The effect is both brilliant and unsettling, exhibiting how Pusha continues to mine the same coke-concerned terrain while consistently elevating his craft.
Over the Chinese-torture-droplet plink of “Just So You Remember,” Pusha’s snide assurances that “that hole in the attic was not for a ceiling fan” equate to yet another clever way of saying he’s got that Jennifer Lawrence for sale. But later in the song, he seems to be gritting his teeth, as if he’s unconsciously mimicking all the fiends he gave Bobby Brown jaw to, when he raps, “The purest snow, we selling white privilege/Designer drugs will turn niggas limitless.”
It’s the “privilege” line, the way he mutters it — with all three syllables — that gives the song its bittersweet power. There’s whole generations (who know nothing but the opposite) implicated in just that simple enunciation. Pusha seems to suggest that the inverse of the conventional American dream is generations of living breathing human beings completely zombified by predators who eventually end up either dead or doing football numbers in some privately owned prison.
Less harrowing, lead single “Diet Coke” has a swaggy ice-cream-truck clang to it, making it the most palatable look for Pusha since 2002’s “Grindin’.” It’s a fitting metaphor, seeing that he’s allegedly overseen more sales of an addictive substance than an ad exec during the Super Bowl. He sounds cheerful, even as he cautions, “Extendos will make plenty noise.”
Lush, futuristic, and enchanting, “Neck and Wrist” is a definite spring break bop. Its coupe-rattling low ends and spacey synths make you fantasize about jet skis or riding a buggy on some scenic South Beach getaway. There’s also a coveted Jay-Z verse, as well as a catchy Pharrell hook that ties everything together, encompassing the best of the dark-light dichotomies Pusha has explored throughout his entire career.
“Scrape It Off the Top” is all verdant keyboards and sensual bass, with a soothing Don Tolliver hook. And “LTSSTC” is a fire-marshal-provoking banger that sounds like it could soundtrack a Hunger Games you wouldn’t mind competing in. When Push says, “The dope game destroyed my youth,” it almost doesn’t sink in because the manic tempo is so enrapturing. Pusha T has taken us through his dark night of the soul. Thankfully, It’s Almost Dry is a comforting gesture toward the light.