With his third studio album, “Daytona,” rapper, producer and GOOD Music label president Pusha T was convinced he’d made the perfect album — so much so, he all but billed it as such when it dropped on May 25.
It’s not a boast if it’s true.
Produced with Kanye West at Ye’s Wyoming ranch-studio facility, the streetwise, sample-heavy album distilled the sonic best of classic hip-hop (including samples of songs by Jay-Z, Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, The Mighty Hannibal and Isaac Hayes) with the loquacious wordsmith’s love of drug, luxury and rap culture at its highest level of artistry, plain and simple.
While Kanye and Pusha were putting together “Daytona,” West was fashioning four additional productions: for his own album (“Ye”), his duets record with Kid Cudi (the eponymous Kids See Ghosts), “K.T.S.E.“ from Teyana Taylor, and a new Nas album, “Nasir.” Still, no matter what attention West put into that crop of 2018 releases — or the tabloid travails that have become a fixture of his public life — he saved his energy and innovation for Pusha T’s wild ride to “Daytona,” and its centerpiece, “Infrared.”
Further pushing Pusha into the zeitgeist was his non-album Drizzy-dis track, “The Story of Adidon,” and its cover image of a younger Drake in blackface. The surprise release proved Pusha was skilled at hip-hop gamesmanship and had a sniper’s aim — a peak moment in an eventful year that culminated in a Grammy nomination for best rap album.
Where were you, psychologically and philosophically at 2018’s start?
Psychologically, it was me assessing the game, and seeing how people are consuming music, and the fast rate in which everybody’s putting out music. It’s me understanding that people like a lot of music, even if it wasn’t awesome. Now, it seemed as if the guys putting out a lot of music were winning. But that’s not what the point. Because I really only liked one song off this joint, and one song off another. For my music, I happen to be very particular. I’m very anal about loving my product. That was where I was at the end of 2017.
How did that feeling affect what “Daytona” was becoming, end of 2017 into January 2018?
It was at that point that I sat down with Kanye, who was also going through a lot of stuff at that same time. We hung out, listened to my stuff, and he was surprised at what he heard. “I can’t believe that you did all this music without me,” he said. We rode around for two days, listening, then I left him. After that he calls and says, “I’ve been riding around with this music. Listening to the verses. You’re on another plane, another level.” He hangs up. Then he calls me back the next day. “I can do this better. I think you and I need to go away. And do this.” That was refreshing… to hear somebody speak the language I speak.. He wanted us to set our taste level at a different height. ”F— that. We’re gonna do what we do. … Let’s go to Utah.”
Is it fair to say that West needed this music as much as you did, despite you having worked on it with other producers.
Yeah. He was, like, “This is going to be therapy for me. I need that. Let’s go.” It was unorthodox, especially after having a body of work together, but it was refreshing to have a new aim, a new target, in line with making this perfection.
“Daytona” is completely different than what you’ve done in the past. When did you see the shift, or begin the change, in what you have written or conceived?
That shift happened between and during the Utah sessions. It was a process. It wasn’t as if we just started recording. We talked. We made our Top 25 greatest moment lists in music, not just rap. What did we love about D’Angelo? What parts of Lauryn Hill’s album was most impactful and why? Then we trimmed that list, down to the most crucial elements. Kanye pointed out how I really liked Raekwon’s “Glaciers Of Ice,” and said I had to make my album as urgent. All this, and I’m still not writing raps, and it’s hella expensive at the resort where we’re staying. But, we’re dialing in to exactly what we want.
And the music? When do you two begin to change what you had already laid down with other producers?
It went immediately from those talks into the music where he’s picking out all the samples. There’s an Amoeba Music pilgrimage, and we’ve got records on top of records on top of records on top of records that he’s buying. This time, we go to Jackson, Wyoming. Same thing. Another resort. Tucked away from everybody. Same energy. He has these records he’s purchased, finding sounds that compliment what we’re looking for. We actually get to the point where he begins to find other textures that aren’t even for me and this record. This is when and where the whole idea of the five albums coming out starts. He may have even found Teyana [Taylor] textures first. In fact, he found those and Cudi’s samples before mine, until he stumbled upon “The Games We Play” samples (Booker Averheart’s “Heart ‘N Soul”, and bits of “Politics as Usual”, written by Cynthia Biggs, Shawn Carter, Dexter Wansel and David Anthony Willis). That got a “woah” from him, because it was 100% me in his eyes.
So you begin to write to that sample, with the higher bar being set?
Yeah, Ye loops that and asks me to write to that. At that point, it’s a race for me. He doesn’t know that. It’s a race to keep his attention, because I want more. … We’re keeping the energy going and flowing. Ultimately I’m trying to finish the “Games We Play,” so that he can be more inspired. Once that happened, it was just record after record, song after song. We had to have more of those moments and enhance what we had. Even the smallest nuances of “If You Know You Know”.. the cymbals crashes and the hi-hat hit.
What was West’s vision?
Ye was like we should we go away, and said we’re not going to conform. I felt as if I had backing that I never had before in regard to me being a hip-hop purist, heavy on lyricism. I wasn’t the only guy in the room saying this anymore. I found the same in my producer. We found a sound bed that was comparable to everything I do lyrically.
And the decision to make it seven songs long?
That became an argument with Ye and I. I wanted to make it 10 songs long. He said, “No. Make it 7. Sometimes you got to shake s— up.” Ye was so right in that moment. What he sold me on was pointing out how a lot of guys put a ton of songs on their album. “What we’re doing, we’re doing for art,” he said. He was right. I didn’t want to do anything those other guys were doing. I just wanted to make sure it was long enough to compete for a Grammy nod. I wanted to do the opposite of everything that was happening in the hip-hop industry.
How does “Infrared” take shape? Because you and Drake have sparred on-and-off since 2012. Why does Drake become a part of your lyrical palate again in April 2018?
It was always going to be, always going to happen. I was always going to get off. “Infrared” had to happen. We were doing the back-and-forth. He had “Two birds, one stone.” This is what rap is. He is… it is a machine in dealing with him. So we deal. But I had to do things at my own time. You can’t just jump out there. We’ve seen how that works when you just treat it like a street battle. It’s really not. You have to play chess.
Seems highly calculated. Like you put the ball in your court.
Yes. It had to happen on my time. Not anybody else’s.
Drake came back at you 24 hours after “Infrared” with “Duppy Freestyle.” But, you nailed him in what seemed like mere moments later, with “The Story of Adidon,” without blinking. That’s was surgical and swift. How did you process and plan for that level of math?
I was in it for the long haul … for hip-hop. I thought this was going to be a running thing, back-and-forth. I was sure he’d have a rebuttal. I did what I wanted to do. I only deal in truth, how I see things. When you’re dealing with words, it’s a way of dealing with truth and how the pubic process that, how they interpret that. And what touches them and what touches the person you’re going against. I actually thought we were going to keep on.
When does the album change its name to “Daytona?”
Because the Daytona Rolex is my favorite watch, and I feel like this album is my favorite of the year. It’s incredible. And that’s all because we had the luxury of time.
A lot has been said about the album’s cover, which was a photo of Whitney Houston’s ransacked bathroom. How did it come about?
My album was coming out on midnight of the 25th, and on the 23rd I already had an album cover, a picture of myself. It doesn’t get any better than that! [Laughs.]Ye commissioned the photographer. I was more worried about the mix than the cover because I had one that I loved. … He called me at midnight and was, like, “Yo man, I really think that the album cover could be stronger. For what we did on this album, I believe I have a stronger image.” He spent a lot of money to license it ($85,000, according to HipHopDX), when he told me what it was, I said that I didn’t want to use it. I didn’t want to pay for that. It’s hot. Too hot. But he said he needed it and would pay for it himself, because he felt that it would truly represent the album — the drugs, the luxury, the ups, the downs. He felt that everything that I was saying inside “Daytona” was represented in that photo. And I couldn’t argue with him. That was that.
You’ve said in no uncertain terms that “Daytona” was the best album of your career and the best album this year. Was that your way of campaigning for a Grammy?
I knew during mixing that this was going to be the rap album of the year. I truly felt that, in my heart of hearts, that no one was rhyming at that level. It hit the nail on the head for what it is. There are a lot of different raps — street, turn up, trap. In my sub-genre, I felt as if I had the best… For what it is, with what I’m doing in lyric driven, street drug-infused, hip-hop lifestyle rap, “Daytona” is the best representation of that. … And I wanted the Rap Album of the Year nom. No other award or nomination mattered. That was it for me. It means a lot because I’ve watched the Grammys my whole life, and remember people I never thought should win or were worth it. There was a point then when rap boycotted the Grammys. Now, I’ve noticed that in the last year that the Grammys are making sure the Rap category is represented in a really great way. That’s awesome. I’m super interested in seeing at how it works out.
What ran through your head on December 7 when you finally got the Grammy nomination you wanted?
I immediately got into a group chat with my manager and my team. We confer every morning. I couldn’t believe it. I thanked them and praised them for all they have done for me always. I always knew this record was strong and they were there.
So where are you now, ending 2018 and going into 2019?
It’s always about recording, and music first. Plus, I’m going to be expounding on the executive end of my career, trying to make my portfolio bigger.