Let’s get this out of the way first: You can’t divorce Pusha T’s Daytona from Kanye West. By Pusha’s own account, West guided the album with a deliberate hand, and his spirit haunts every nook and cranny, from excellent production on every song to his careening guest appearance near the end of album. Even the provocative yet tasteless album cover—a tabloid image of Whitney Houston’s drug-ridden bathroom counter—was handpicked by Kanye. This statement is as much his as it is Pusha T’s. And what a statement it is: Daytona, the best of Pusha T’s three solo albums, capitalizes on the minimalism inherent in its short runtime by contorting itself around Pusha’s rhythms and flows, allowing him to fully command the space he inhabits. At only seven tracks, nothing here is flashy: the songs are murky, grim and heavy, full of soul samples, trap drums, and sparse effects. It’s the perfect showcase for Pusha’s coke dealer fantasies and stories of street credibility, in the process cementing him as one of our premier rappers.
Still, you can’t talk about Daytona without talking about West. In a recent interview for Vulture, Pusha explained the extent to which Kanye controlled the direction of the album. “Kanye likes to hear me one way. One way. I mean, he’s made some great melodic records in his day. Pusha T will probably never get one of them,” he said. “And, I be pissed about it sometimes. But, you know, when he’s in that zone and he feels like he’s making… A zone like this, where he’s like, ‘Yo, I’m gonna do all the records.’ You sort of let him steer the ship.” It’s an understandable gripe, feeling like you might be boxed into a particular sound by your producer. But Kanye understands the best way to utilize Pusha across a solo album, never giving him a chance to sink or swim on a song that might not work for him. (Pusha’s two previous solo albums are plagued by uninspired R&B experiments.) In fact, the only time this album falters is when someone else is rapping, be it Kanye or Rick Ross, both of whom bring the album to a screeching halt. The listener is left with the impression that Pusha is the only one who can be trusted to fully command this brand of menacing music.
The album is claustrophobic and unrelenting, but also intensely exhilarating in its brevity. Pusha is an incredibly impressive rapper who raps about the ugliest, most uncomfortable things with skill—and this album is plenty ugly. On “Hard Piano,” Pusha raps, “I won’t let you ruin my dreams or Harvey Weinstein the kid,” and on “What Would Meek Do?” Kanye raps about how his Make America Great Again hat lets him worm his way out of traffic stops. On album highlight “Come Back Baby,” Pusha fantasizes about capitalizing on Baltimore’s heroin epidemic and Washington D.C.’s crack era over a sample of “The Truth Shall Set You Free” by The Mighty Hannibal, a song about turning to Jesus instead of drugs.
There is a purposeful ugliness to all of it, highlighted by a cover that uses a drug user’s darkest moments to make a grand statement about the luxuries afforded to the seller. The album’s unrepentance sometimes feels cheap. Arising discomfort in the listener was signaled clearly by West’s choice of the cover, which ultimately doesn’t accomplish much beyond self-indulgence. Whitney deserved better, honestly. The clangs and bangs of Kanye’s production, meanwhile, renders that ugliness in a far more artful way. The transition from “Come Back Baby” into “Santeria”—when a sample of George Jackson’s “I Can’t Do Without You” is consumed by a distorted version of the iconic “Bumpy’s Lament”—is a top tier moment in Kanye West production history. Everything about the construction of these songs is exceptional, as if Kanye is explicitly reminding us that he’s one of the best to ever do it.
Almost a year ago, Jay-Z released 4:44, an album he made in conjunction with only one producer: No I.D. It would be unfair to everyone to allege that Kanye’s decision to produce not only Pusha T’s album but also a whole slate of new projects for himself, Kid Cudi, Teyana Taylor and Nas, was informed by that. But its shadow nonetheless looms, as if Kanye came back to remind everyone that he can personally still make music at the highest level. Pusha T is the first beneficiary of that. Daytona is a magnum opus and a career celebration for him, but only a harbinger of things to come for Kanye.