Available on: G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam
In the lead up to the release of My Name Is My Name, we heard more from executive producer Kanye West than Pusha himself. Kanye’s recent “rant” about Pusha was nothing if not passionate. He spoke of how Pusha is “the culture”; a figurehead for those grasping for something “real” to hold onto in the face of rap’s rampant commercialisation, and heightening expectations of what’s been tipped as one of the best rap albums of the year. In a culture apparently saturated with throwaway radio singles, forgettable voices and a short-sightedness towards contributing to and reinvigorating the cultural conversation, Kanye sees in Pusha a singular voice, and in My Name Is My Name a singular vision of what the culture needs: “good music.”
The thing is, whilst My Name Is My Name has one of the best selections of beats on a major label rap album in years, and Pusha’s enunciations are still as sonically potent as a decade ago, his singularity largely comes across as a stubborn resistance to change in the face of how ambitious the LP (and so much new rap, frankly) sounds, and suffers from a tracklist too concerned with features to allow this singularity to reign supreme anyway. Considering how Pusha has continued to enjoy a legendary status since the game-changing Lord Willin’ dropped in 2001 without a major label solo LP to push him forward, precious little thematic intrigue and growth has manifested since in his solo story-telling. Lyrically, this leaves much of My Name Is My Name to rest on decade-old stories and what is now an almost anti-charismatic display of bullish, one-dimensional character reinforcement, dragging the lake of cocaine metaphors and failing to appreciate that in 2013, “authenticity-as-background-check” is no longer a prerequisite for a great rapper or rap album.
Is there not a delicious irony in Pusha opening ‘Hold On’ with “I sold more dope than I sold records, you niggas sold records, never sold dope/So I ain’t hearing none of that street shit, ’cause in my mind you motherfuckers sold soap”, only to have former Corrections Officer Rick Ross – Drake and Nicki Minaj aside, this generation’s most overtly constructed rap character study – then insist that he’s a “crack dealer living like a hoop star”? Considered alongside grabs from ‘King Push’ (“Vultures to my culture, exploit the struggle, insult ya/They name dropping about ‘caine copping, but never been a foot soldier”) and ‘Suicide’ (“I built mine off fed time and dope lines, you caught steam off headlines and co-signs”), it’s a moment that leaves a sharp aftertaste, and drags down the energy and insistence of Pusha’s declarations.
Is it all just a tongue-in-cheek reference to rap’s widening gap between “authenticity” (of place, time, back story, etc), talent and success as bedfellows – or is it a case of hop on the G.O.O.D. foot and do the done thing, packing the album out with co-sign features? Are Pusha and Ross allowed to reminisce about possibly imaginary drug empires, so long as they are consistent in their persona-building? And for the rap fan who’s listening, how much do we even care about received notions of authenticity in a culture as varied and innovative as it is now – especially when the album’s executive producer is a middle class momma’s boy who has channelled his manifold insecurities into some of the most remarkable music in a decade?
Say it quietly, but there’s an unfortunate truth at the heart of My Name Is My Name: this is really Kanye’s labour of love, not Pusha’s, and its variety and scope is indicative of a litany of compromises made to balance out the fact that Pusha’s authenticity-is-greatness narrative proves shaky across the drive and drain of an otherwise well crafted release. It’s a problem not helped by the sequencing, which splits the most arresting tracks between the very beginning (‘King Push’, Numbers On The Board’) and the very end (‘Nosetalgia’, ‘Pain’, ‘S.N.I.T.C.H’), making for a noticeable lag in the middle. There’s the Ma$e-esque attempted love jam ‘Let Me Love You’, the half-way bombastic ‘No Regrets’, and ‘Who I Am’, which works ESG’s ‘U.F.O.’ into a glorious, stuttering buzz-saw of a beat, but nearly has the oxygen sucked out of it by the toxically glib Big Sean – the Diet Meek Mill rattling through a verse that inspires no one and delivers nothing but a cheque.
Yet, when ‘Ye and Pusha meet halfway and find a beat and feature that works, it’s just stunning. Future’s maudlin auto-tune on ‘Pain’ wails pitch perfectly through the beat’s litany of percussive gunshots, and (almost) makes me want Future and Ciara to split up just so he can record an album that sounds as miserable and heartbroken as this. ‘Nosetalgia’, too, is a triumph. Pusha’s drug-dealing analogies remain unrepentant, but are more witty, playful and introspective than elsewhere, and he relishes every lip-smacking syllable with a goosebump-inducing cruelty matched only by Kendrick’s opener: “You wanna see a dead body?” More than just a switch-up in flow, it’s a rare chance for Pusha’s core theme to allow for perspective flip. As his kingpin tale jumps straight into Kendrick’s childhood memories of his crack addict/dealer father, they both show how strange a beast redemption can be.
In short, on My Name Is My Name, Pusha doesn’t really give much away about his past, present or future, and it’s a disconcerting thought for an album posited as a vanguard for a more “real” presentation of rap. For a man so concerned with the successes and sacrifices of his past, it’s interesting to turn that onto his present. Where has he succeeded and what has he sacrificed as a rapper in the making of My Name Is My Name? And perhaps, what has Kanye? Because, to be blunt, the album sounds like it truly belongs to neither.