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Pusha T could rap forever, but only on his terms

Pusha T poses for a portrait at the Def Jam Records office in New York earlier this month. The veteran rapper, 45, scored his first chart-topping album with “It’s Almost Dry,” released in April. (Mary Inhea Kang for The Washington Post)
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Pusha T considers himself a loner in hip-hop, surveying the landscape with skepticism from an aloof distance. Where some of his peers might enjoy the cumulative power of alliances, he takes pride in standing alone. He’s put off by the music industry’s smoke and mirrors, which he sees through with piercing clarity. “Truthfully, a lot of those guys are supposed to embody and stand for the same s--- that I stand for,” he says. “But I see that they don’t.” The isolation can be felt throughout “It’s Almost Dry,” the rapper’s most recent album, which was his first to top the charts, and one on which he often finds glee in the ruthless drug dealer persona he’s been embodying for his entire career.

The Virginia Beach native rose to fame with his brother as the brash half of hip-hop duo Clipse, and over the past two decades the self-proclaimed “Robb Report of the snort” has perfected his craft, finding a niche in the overlap between coke and luxury rap. Clipse’s run included two of the 2000s’ most-acclaimed albums of any genre — 2002′s “Lord Willin’” and 2006′s “Hell Hath No Fury” — and Pusha T’s star continued to rise when he signed with Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music label as a solo artist in 2010 as he picked up aesthetic polish from the notoriously particular rapper and producer.

At 45, Pusha T is well aware of contemporary hip-hop’s trends but unconcerned with them. As a Gen Xer who fell in love with hip-hop during its first golden era, he has a particular affinity for lyricism. “I don’t think being good lyrically goes out of style,” Pusha T says via Zoom call during a break from touring in support of “It’s Almost Dry.” His outlook isn’t rooted purely in rigid pedantry, either: It’s based on his taste, but it’s also tied to what he’s accomplished through a very specific approach.

Even with supreme confidence in his résumé (“I don’t think anything is better than ‘It’s Almost Dry’ — at all,” he says with conviction), Pusha isn’t content to rest on his laurels. He’s thinking about the future and wholeheartedly believes that he can rap at a high level well into it. Legacy is paramount to Pusha T, so every move he makes is in service of being remembered not only with reverence, but also in accordance with his principles. “I want everyone to be able to look back at my discography and go, ‘This guy knew exactly who he was,’ ” he says.

Despite feeling like a lone wolf, Pusha T has the bona fides to work with whoever he chooses. Jay-Z makes a guest appearance on “Neck & Wrist,” an entrancing track from “It’s Almost Dry” on which the billionaire stands atop his massive net worth to look down on peons with inferior jewelry. The album’s sonic backdrop was crafted almost exclusively by West and Pharrell Williams, two of the most esteemed producers in music, who are able to elicit the best from Pusha T in different ways. He credits Williams — who with his Neptunes production partner, Chad Hugo, blessed Clipse with many of their best and most abstract compositions — for encouraging him to resist boundaries. “There’s no ceiling to Pharrell’s creativity, and he pushes you to have no ceiling with what you want to do, musically,” he explains.

Meanwhile, Pusha T describes working with West as a “humbling” experience at times because West prods him to edit himself. This is unsurprising, considering West’s history of blowing deadlines and making last-minute updates to his work — even after it’s already been released. “Kanye could hear a verse from me and go, ‘Oh, my God, that was so great,’” he says. “Then he’ll live with the verse for two days and say: ‘Hey man, I think you could change like, three things.’ And I’ll go, ‘But you were just happy the other day,’ and he’ll say, ‘Yeah, but I lived with it and I think it could be better.’”

Still, it’s Williams who demands more out of Pusha T, constantly nudging him out of his comfort zone. “Me and Kanye are very similar in our love for hot 16s, mixtape rap, hard verses, and things like that,” he says. “Pharrell loves all those things, but he wants them in a hit record.” This led to debates between Pusha T and Williams during the making of “It’s Almost Dry,” but the clashes were productive because they challenged Pusha T to bring his best — in terms of lyrics, flow and delivery — to win Williams over. “And that’s where the tug-of-war comes into play, and we create a record like ‘Call My Bluff’ and you get to that point where we’re all just extremely satisfied,” he says.

“I think he strikes with karma and loves delivering it with heartless expression, in whatever fashion,” says Williams, who has known Pusha T since the latter was in high school. “So when you look at the music on this particular album, we allowed people in the other sections of his mind’s library.”

Pusha T believes that enlisting the two biggest figures in his artistic development is essential to staying sharp for as long as possible. He’s at a point in his career at which, traditionally, many rappers’ popularity has waned. “I feel like everybody who was great before me — and I’m talking about from the golden era, who I was a fan of as a child — you realize that it was only three or four albums,” he says. “The albums are amazing, but when you realize how short the window was, it’s crazy.”

This has shifted during the course of Pusha T’s career. He points to Jay-Z as an artist who has continued to have great success while retaining his skills in his 50s, but also considers Jay-Z part of an era of hip-hop that precedes him. Pusha T believes his particular generation of rappers can be the first to exhibit that they can be great, in a technical sense, for the entirety of their careers. “I actually want to be competitive in the space and match whatever it is that I’m doing to whatever is the most popular at the time and see how it mounts up,” he says. And naturally, he absolutely believes in the enduring presence of his music in comparison to what’s popular: “You can A and B them — set them side-by-side — and mine just stands the test of time.”

The Pusha T who’s irked by the mispronunciation of French fashion house Lanvin on the “It’s Almost Dry” cut “Dreamin of the Past” is far removed from the brazen younger artist who announced, “Playas, we ain’t the same — I’m into ’caine and guns” on the intro to Clipse’s major-label debut. However, the biggest critique of Pusha T is that he’s one-dimensional and that his arrogant drug dealer shtick has grown stale. A Variety review of the new album cited disappointment that Pusha T, who’s now a married father, remains so dedicated to coke rap when he has the capacity to tap into other subjects and display growth. Calling out his supposed arrested development overlooks the evolution that’s taken place out in the open.

Street rap is Pusha T’s genre, and coke rap the specific subgenre that he’s partial to. He talks about selling drugs frequently, but he’s able to do it with some depth and variation under the street rap umbrella. “Nightmares,” from “Hell Hath No Fury,” is heavy with paranoia. “S.N.I.T.C.H.,” from Pusha T’s debut solo album, “My Name Is My Name,” is an ode to betrayal. “Brambleton,” the hypnotic opener to “It’s Almost Dry,” strikes a similar chord but finds Pusha T getting deeply personal and addressing former Clipse manager Anthony “Geezy” Gonzalez, who spent time in federal prison for leading a major drug operation, with cutting (though clearly wounded) barbs.

“It’s Almost Dry” also finds Pusha T experimenting with different flows and pockets, as on the off-kilter “Neck & Wrist,” the demonic rush of “Let the Smokers Shine the Coupes,” and the icy “Brambleton.” “The way in which he delivers it, that’s where we kind of shook the tree this time,” Williams explains.

“Lyrically, his rhymes have become more eidetic,” says music journalist and broadcaster Brian “B. Dot” Miller. “Sonically, he’s willing to experiment with new sounds like on ‘Numbers on the Board and Infrared,’” songs from 2013 and 2018, respectively.

In any case, the stagnation critique holds little weight with Pusha T, who is more focused on specific tasks that are directly in front of him at the moment.

The Something in the Water festival, started by Williams in his native Virginia Beach back in 2019, will take over the National Mall as it returns this weekend. Williams elected to move the festival following his disapproval with the response from city officials after police shot and killed his cousin Donovon Lynch in 2021. “I just don’t think the powers that be were respectful of what Pharrell brought to Virginia Beach, so it called for a relocation,” Pusha T says. “D.C. has always been near and dear to Pharrell and I’s hearts.”

Pusha T was already included on the massive lineup of performers, but he says he received a special request from Williams’s team a little more than a week before the event. According to Pusha T, they wanted him to ask his brother, No Malice, to join him for a Clipse reunion. No Malice agreed, confirming the third iteration of a Clipse reunion this year after the brothers reconnected on Japanese streetwear icon and Clipse enthusiast Nigo’s “I Know Nigo!” compilation album and the climax of “It’s Almost Dry.” “Even though these are little one-off things, it’s just a reminder — especially those verses — that the Clipse could actually do an album tomorrow and people would love it,” Pusha T says.

Having served as the president of G.O.O.D. Music since 2015, he says he can see himself as a label head opening doors for other Virginia artists down the line. “I think there’s so much talent that’s come from Virginia, but just due to history, the landscape and the way things played out, I feel like we were really great artists, but never really built the infrastructure,” he says. “So it’s something I’d like to see and something I’m taking on.”

But first, he wants to release additional music with Williams and West as his maestros. “I’m not really trying to tap into new frontiers if we’re not making them together,” he says. “I’m not chasing the sound of the moment.” He also wants to release music more often because he thinks it would aid the conversation around how his work compares with the sound of the moment.

Pusha T’s combination of self-assurance and rigor could convince most that he would at least try to rap until he’s no longer able. But he acknowledges that he can see an end for himself in hip-hop. It would come on his terms, of course: He’ll stop if he can’t create what he wants, the way he wants, with whom he wants.

“I only want to do this one way,” he says. “I’m just thinking discography-wise now, and I want mine to have a certain feel. If I can’t do that, then yeah, I can be done.”