“Everything is Pusha T,” screamed Kanye West last night at the Manhattan listening event for My Name Is My Name, the long-awaited solo debut from the beloved Clipse rapper. In his speech, Kanye positioned Pusha at the center of hip-hop culture, making a case that the songs King Push made as part of Clipse and the material he’s currently making for West’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint are more important and vital than any fly-by-night fashion trend. It was a compelling argument, supported and complicated by the abrasive music played throughout the night.
The event itself was a relatively stripped-down, unfussy affair held at Industria Superstudio in New York City. In a cavernous, almost warehouse-like atmosphere, women in white zip-up smocks served mixed drinks as hip-hop industry types mulled around, surrounded by large white cut-outs of the record’s stark, minimal artwork designed by DONDA. Free-standing fluorescent light pillars filled the room, and ambient music played as the crowd quietly buzzed in anticipation.
Around 9:00 p.m., the lights went out. Sporting an orange and black hat, Pusha appeared in the center of the room, rapping along as the first track played. With the volume cranked all the way up, militaristic drums and a squealing sample set the tone for the record: We’re still in Yeezus territory here. As the similarly minimal cover art suggests, My Name Is My Name is an album, like Kanye’s controversial 2013 record, that’s interested in marrying harsh, dissonant textures with pop songwriting. The dichotomy was brought home on the second track, the Chris Brown-assisted “Sweet Serenade,” which sounds both club-ready and more than a little menacing. Featuring the album’s first “EGHCK,” the track also includes the line, “They love me on my Ric Flair shit.”
After the third track, Kanye appeared, sending the photographers in the room into a minor frenzy. As everyone tried to catch a glimpse of ‘Ye, the Hudson Mohawke-produced “Hold On” blasted through the speakers, Rick Ross’s booming voice repeating, “I got you my nigga/Hold on” as Kanye sang in the background. The track also includes some of Pusha’s hardest lines, particularly one about “blond hair, blue eyes like the Fuhrer.” It finishes up with an extended piano part that might remind listeners of Kanye and Pusha’s “Runaway” collaboration.
Fittingly, after the song Kanye cut the music and delivered his Pusha-inspired soliloquy. It was a bit odd to see Kanye so completely take the spotlight away from the more subdued Pusha on his big night, but it wasn’t altogether surprising: Kanye’s fingerprints are all over this album. In the same way that Common’s Be found Kanye channeling his production obsessions of that era into celebrating an artist he clearly admired for a long time, My Name Is My Name refashions the experimental tendencies of late-period Kanye to make a case for Pusha as the lyrical king of a barren rap landscape.
And, on first listen, it feels like Pusha lives up to the task, delivering bits of maniacal wordplay throughout the album while still finding room to be playful and imaginative like he was in his Lord Willin’ days. At one point Pusha goes on an extended baby riff that includes the line, “No wonder there’s a diaper rash on my conscience.” The same song (“Nose Stalgia”) also features a killer verse from Kendrick Lamar that opens with the question, “You wanna see a dead body?” The rapping on the album is impressive throughout, with everyone from Jeezy to Kendrick to long-time Re-Up Gang member Ab-Liva all rising to the occasion.
The album closes with a soulful and epic track featuring John Legend about trying to come home and finding inner peace. Like the album’s Kelly Rowland collaboration, the song serves as a useful counter balance to all the darkness and anger. It’s a poignant and emotional finale for a record that’s often concerned with appearing defiant and confrontational.
Even with Kanye serving as Pusha’s hype-man/co-conspirator and his brother No Malice off exploring more spiritual concerns, the question remains: What does Pusha T want to express as a solo artist? There’s a track on the album called “Who I Am” that finds him saying, “I just wanna be who I am,” and the album’s title places a similar emphasis on asserting your own identity. It’s very clear now: His name is his name. But for a lot of fans Pusha’s post-Clipse persona is still a little undefined and shrouded in ambiguity. This album should correct some of that, but it also brings up new questions, new mysteries. Get ready to dive in.—Dan Jackson