- SPIN Rating:7 of 10
Label: G.O.O.D. Music
Pusha T begins his 2013 with a brutal blitzkrieg of impeccably wrought lines shot through with the godly confidence of the golden-era hip-hop standard that gives his new mixtape its title: Big Daddy Kane's "Wrath of Kane." This is to be expected: Pusha raps better than your favorite current rapper. In his 10-plus-year career, he's rarely forsaken a rhymed word. But as the curt Wrath of Caine zips through its 11 songs, he more and more marries his impervious talents to his equally daunting demons.
True, the veteran Clipse member and current Kanye West cohort has been myopically pigeonholed as just a coke rapper in the past, but now he's embracing the darker recesses of his soul, which includes reveling in a growing God complex and confidently breaking free from the tethers of his old, dormant group. (His Clipse partner Malice has temporarily put hip-hop on hold to pursue his religious faith.) And if Pusha's latest project first attacks with abrasive street-rap bombast, by the end it's all about readying him for the next stage in his career, recasting him as a fully fledged solo personality full of emotional and ethical contradictions. With Kanye as his label boss, he's under good tutelage to get there.
Wrath sparks off with "Intro," as a volley of theatrical hi-hats and snares courtesy of producer Dready allow Pusha to assert his prowess over lowly rap mortals. "'Vengeance is mine,' says the Lord / Throwing shots at niggas 'cause I'm bored and they whores," he jabs, before possibly throwing a sly barb at Lil Wayne with a New Orleans reference and distancing himself from those who'd consider themselves his peers: "I'm too much dope dealer for rap niggas / Too much closer to every trap nigga / I'm just preaching facts, nigga." Underscoring his classically honed talent, he adds, "Now everybody so '80s-'90s-inspired / But none of you niggas '80s-'90s-rhyming." This is rap music that Antonio Hardy in his prime would’ve heartily endorsed.
While steeped in the hip-hop glory days that first inspired him to rhyme, Pusha has always seemed cautious about falling out of touch with the youthful vanguard. He once told me in an interview that Main Source's 1991 Breaking Atoms is the album he'd most like to hear performed live in its entirely, but added that these days he probably wouldn't want to work with that project's architect, Large Professor. So, Wrath of Caine is packed with young charges: French Montana adds his drone to the hook of "Doesn't Matter," upcoming New York powder merchant Troy Ave helps out on the Harry Fraud-crafted "Road Runner," and Chief Keef's BFF Young Chop gets to provide the beat for "Blocka" (although it's best to gloss over the hook of that one, which sounds more like someone championing their favorite "vlogger").
Pusha has cannily positioned himself as the link between rap generations: He's the guy who gets to fly out to Hawaii with Kanye and Jay-Z while donning headphones and pumping out a playlist of cocky young regional kids his stratosphere-inhabiting pals aren't hip to yet. It's a blend that not only keeps him fresh, but builds up his air of invincibility. At his best, he sounds untouchable. And freed now of Clipse, he comes off both looser in style and more barbaric in his braggadocio. "I'm a global nigga, Champs-Élysées shopper / Looked up to Eric B and dope-dealer chain-rockers," he brags on "Take My Life," while elsewhere invoking his ownership of $100,000 horses. If Pusha once seemed rankled by his position as the junior Thornton brother, he's now thrown off the training wheels supporting his first few solo mixtapes and is more comfortable with quips like, "It ain't enough that I struggled through my career / Less appreciated when I was part of a pair."
This pomp and bold confidence in his talent blooms throughout Wrath of Caine. But he’s most appealing when he uses that invulnerable persona to muse on how his past reconciles with his future. He termed it the "self-righteous drug-dealer dichotomy" on the closing cut to last year's Fear of God II mixtape, and he continues the theme with the conclusion here, "I Am Forgiven": "I felt entitled to it / Not how the Bible do it / My bright eyes exposed to how the 'hood idols do it / I just took a page, then I took the stage / Then put the face of the Rollie in that diamond cage." Then comes the shame: "It was written like these tatted Bible verses on me / I feel the weight upon my shoulders like the church is on me."
This is a curious listen. In a world of bloated 20-track mixtapes that are official albums in all but categorization, this is offered as a deliberate teaser for an upcoming full-length project, My Name Is My Name. It gives hints and offers clues about where Pusha will be heading without fully heading there. The Neptunes, whose Pharrell-led productions remain the rapper's natural home, contribute only "Revolution," a song that's under two minutes long, but ends with what may be prescient lines: "New catalogue gon' hurt you / Going in, it's dark like it's curfew / Going in the vault it'll earth you / I'm back in with P, it's full circle." Pusha has said that Kanye considers the songs he's been recording for My Name to, at times, sound like "hell." If he can continue to wrench open his soul to reveal more from that dark vault and twin it with his indomitable rap persona, he'll have delivered something glorious. For now, embrace the prelude.