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It would be tempting to write the sentiment off as typical pre-album hyperbole, but not with Pusha, not now: For the first time in more than a decade, he seems to have the wind at his back. Few artists sport more industry battle scars. Pusha, real name Terrence Thornton, first started rapping in the early 1990s, when he and his older brother, Gene “Malice” Thornton, formed the Clipse in their native Virginia Beach. It’s a town more known for resorts and military bases, but it did produce two other notable hip-hop luminaries: Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, a.k.a. The Neptunes. The producers’ success helped land the Clipse a deal with Elektra in 1997. But after a debut single, “The Funeral,” flopped, the duo was dropped; a first album-to-be, Exclusive Audio Footage, produced entirely by The Neptunes, shelved.
The group toiled without a deal until 2001, when Arista signed them and released their proper debut, Lord Willin’, a year later. With hit singles like “Grindin’” and “When The Last Time” and The Neptunes at the peak of their pop dominance, the record went platinum. But when Arista was absorbed by Jive during the Sony-BMG merger in 2004, Pusha and Malice were mired in label limbo yet again. After a highly acclaimed series of mixtapes with their crew, the Re-Up Gang, the duo finally released their sophomore album, Hell Hath No Fury, and though it was hailed by some as a classic (this magazine gave it the maximum “XXL” rating), it tanked commercially. Their third album, Til The Casket Drops, released in 2009 on Columbia after yet another label switcheroo, fared even worse.
“I have the wildest discography in rap,” Pusha says. “It’s like I ain’t even supposed to be here. Nobody survives hiatuses like that.”
But the biggest speed bump of all had nothing to do with industry politics. The Clipse’s music, with its detailed, first-person accounts of the drug game, has often been labeled “coke rap.” In April 2009, however, it became clear that the group’s dope-boy imagery had a real-life backstory. Federal prosecutors charged seven of the Clipse’s business associates and friends with running a $20 million cocaine and marijuana ring and laundering money via music-industry pursuits—including Soul Providers Entertainment, the Clipse’s booking agency. The accused held “themselves out as music producers, rappers, entrepreneurs, club owners, clothing designers and other legitimate occupations in order to conceal the true source of their income,” the indictment read. Pusha and Malice themselves were never charged, but former manager Anthony “Geezy” Gonzalez pled guilty to drug conspiracy charges and was sentenced to 32 years.
“It’s a painful situation—all of my family that started this music thing with me are in jail,” Pusha says. “It was a super, super rough time. I remember I went to my mother’s house, and she’d heard what was going on. She’s looking at me trying to read me, like, ‘How are you feeling? Are you afraid?’ She didn’t know what to say to me, but after a while she asked me, ‘Are they coming to get my car?’”
Four years later, Pusha’s brother still tenses up when talking about it. For Malice, now known as “No Malice,” the brush with the law led to big changes. Shortly after Gonzalez’s sentencing, the elder Thornton took a step back from music, changed his name, publicly embraced Christianity, and wrote and self-published a novel about it, Wretched, Pitiful, Poor, Blind And Naked, in 2011. “Before this happened, we were in L.A., in an elevator. We had just gotten done talking to Rick Rubin. And I said, ‘Bro, I just can’t do it. You wanna do your solo thing, you should go ahead,’” says No Malice on the phone from his Virginia home. “But this was the cherry on top. When everything unfolded, we kept getting phone call after phone call: ‘They just picked up so-and-so.’ And the last thing we heard was, ‘They’re still looking for two more people.”