WORDS JAYSON RODRIGUEZ (@jayhovawitness)
Pusha T and 2 Chainz may be new to the solo stage, but they're no rookies. Each MC has a track record that dates back over a decade; Push as part of the coke rap outfit Clipse, and Chainz, then known as Tity Boi, as a member of Disturbing Tha Peace group Playaz Circle. Still, with all the accomplishments between them, the pair—separately and together—have been pitched as 2012 XXL Freshmen by the online masses and industry insiders alike. There’s an argument to be made for both.

Since rebranding himself in 2009, 2 Chainz, 34, has set the game on fire with an enviable run of mixtapes, chiefly Codeine Cowboys and T.R.U. REALigion. The latter produced the Atlanta MC’s breakout hit “Spend It” featuring T.I. and led to a string of cameos on projects by Rick Ross, Young Jeezy and DJ Drama. He’s arguably the hottest MC out right now without a proper solo album under his Gucci belt. His studio debut, T.R.U. 2 (Def Jam Recordings), still isn’t expected to arrive until later this year.

Push, 33, on the other hand, has consistently drawn praise for his Pyrex-tinged rhymes. In 2010, though, Kanye West recruited The Neptunes protégé to join his G.O.O.D. Music roster as a soloist, and later that year he featured Pusha on the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy standout “Runaway,” on which the fiery wordsmith rhymed with an emotional depth he had yet to showcase. That cameo, in addition to the Virginia native’s last March Fear of God mixtape, propelled the lyricist to new heights, helping him brand both himself and Re-Up Gang Records, the label he co-owns with his older brother, the other half of the Clipse, Malice.

Here, 2 Chainz and Pusha T speak to XXL about why they don’t see themselves as Freshman candidates, the similarities they see in one another and how each would have been just fine if they never dropped a solo album.

XXL: You got a ton of people who pushed for you to be a Freshman this year. Has that buzz gotten back to you?

2 Chainz: I’ve heard people say “Don’t worry about it” or “You should be okay,” but I haven’t gotten caught up in it.
Does it make you feel any type of way to be viewed like that? Honestly, I didn’t feel any way. I think being on the cover of any magazine for any reason is a good look. But I know being on the cover of the Freshman issue is a big deal; it’s like who is gonna be on the cover of the Madden [NFL video game] this year. It’s an indication of who is steaming. But in my opinion, and from previous issues, it’s not always accurate, you know? I didn’t want that to define me. ’Cause you could have people with that look with no buzz. As long as I’m getting acknowledged for working hard and recognized, I appreciate that look.

You were able to transform your career in the past few years, specifically by changing your name. Are you satisfied with where you’re at today as a result of the route you took to become a solo rapper?

Definitely. It’s widened my lane and opened up more ears and added a few more [people] listening. People who once judged a book by its cover now open the book. So it’s cool. It was nothing that I can just take all the credit for, as far as being brilliant to come up with a name change and good timing. It was something natural and a part of my music, the jewelry, the collection of charms and crosses. I’m just a product of God’s word and hard work, that’s where it comes from.

The name change gets the most headlines, but what was the key behind your recent rise?

The consistency and the presence that I’ve had virally on the Internet for the last year or so. Just getting one fan at a time, taking it back to the grind. One day at a time, one step at a time, one fan at a time. I just took it to that origin and it’s been working with me.