Music

Overrated/Underrated: Is Pusha T One Of The Best Rappers Alive?

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Underrated/Overrated is a new hip-hop column where we examine the legacy of a rapper and try to determine once and for all: Are they overrated or underrated? First up, Pusha T.

Pusha T Is Overrated

“Grindin'” the infectious, lunch table beat box inviting single by Virginia Beach rap duo Clipse was released nearly 15 years ago. Since then, the reputation of the brothers that made up the group, Gene “Malice” Thornton and Terrence “Pusha T” Thornton has been sterling. In 2010, the brothers took divergent paths, with Push pursuing a solo career, and Malice renaming himself No Malice, penning a memoir, and becoming much more outspoken about his Christian faith, before releasing a solo LP himself. The line for years has been that that the critically-acclaimed duo will never reunite for another joint album as Clipse, though that’s wavered some, it’s mostly been Pusha that has born the Clipse flag this past decade, receiving nearly universal acclaim for his solo works. His supporters have propped him up, slated him alongside the best rappers alive, wondering if the younger Clipse brother is the best rapper alive, continually pushing the narrative that Drake was afraid of a lyrical war with him and just heaping praise on Push nearly non-stop.

But all of that bears the question: Is Pusha T worthy of all that? Or has Pusha T become overrated?

Like many words, the internet has mostly skewered what the word “overrated” actually means. Most take overrated as an outright lambasting of something or someone, essentially declaring them not good. In reality, overrated means “to have a higher opinion of (someone or something) than is deserved” simply put, if you’re rating something a ten and really it’s just an eight than it’s overrated. An eight out of ten is still good, really good in fact, it’s just not perfect.

That might be the perfect definition of Pusha-T, who is hailed as one of the greats by some, when really he’s one of the goods. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Pusha is undoubtedly talented and obviously has the gift of gab and an interesting vocabulary. He raps with a certain conviction that makes you believe everything he says, from the most rugged and raunchy tales of street life, to the most gaudy and opulent exposés of high stakes coke dealing. Push always seems at his best when he could swoop in on somebody’s track like a hawk and kill it, like “New God Flow.” Get in, rip through an aggressive, colorful and pointed verse and never waste a syllable.

Basically, he’s a complementary piece, and that’s why he’s overrated, because you can’t be Top 5 or the best alive if you’re basically a role player. An incredible role player, but a role player nonetheless. Cleveland Cavalier’s forward Kyle Korver is one hell of a 3-point shooter, like a historically great 3-point shooter, but he’s not the centerpiece of a team. He’s more than a Kyle Korver, but you get the point.

Push’s albums and mixtapes breakdown the same way, trying to use that same formula where he has a ton of guest spots to toss in verses or hooks. It’s meant to complement his strengths, unleash him in doses where he can get in, rap, and get out. Maybe that’s all the result of him coming up in a group, but that faint hint of a limitation lingers.

What’s odd is Push is versatile enough to carry album-length LPs, so he could probably handle the workload himself. However, his dexterity is in mechanics, not really in content or stuff like flow or cadence. Maybe he knows too much Pusha in one place would be boring, but that gives weight to the argument for him being a notch down from the greats and overrated? Jay Z’s Blueprint and Black Album have just two features over their 29 songs, and one of those is a half a hook from Pharrell. If Push is great like that, shouldn’t he be able to mix it up enough to do the heavy lifting without any help?

On the wrong day, viewed through the right lens, one might listen to Pusha T and hear a one-note rapper who gets extra credit because he enunciates things with pizzaz and throws in some funny words here and there. Is he good at what he does? Sure. But is that enough to elevate him to the top of the mountain, especially with as infrequently as he releases music? Um, no. Not even close.

Pusha T is overrated because he’s held in such high regard, and even though he’s good, he’s not great. His solo work has been real hit or miss, no matter how much I love every-single-syllable of “MPA.” Good but not great isn’t bad at all, it just makes you a tad overrated if everybody says you’re great.

Maybe with a complete, definitive body of work? Like, a classic? Maybe then he becomes a true and undeniable great. The funny part about that is that sounds like a certain Canadian we all know and love. Interesting. Pusha T is a solid B+ but not quite an A yet. I can live with that. So yes, he is overrated.

Just a tad. —Bansky Gonzalez

Pusha T Is Underrated

Since Pusha T came on the scene in 2002 with his brother Malice in tow, as the unapologetic crack-rap duo Clipse, Push has been lauded as the Picasso of grimy, criminal-enterprise-detailing hip-hop. From there he earned, bar by painstakingly-constructed bar a reputation for being an absolute wizard when it comes to wordplay and double entendre, elevating the art form of drug rap. Terrence LeVarr Thornton’s rap persona is a streetwise, regretful kingpin… and he pulls it off! Just look at that hair. He is already 250% more believable because only someone who is really from the toughest, crime-ridden streets still rocks those braids in 2017.

All jokes aside, when Pusha launches into a verse from an underground hit like “Sweet Serenade” with volleys like “Raised ’round killers, we just happy to be here,” he convinces listeners of the veracity of his boasts through the poignancy of his prayers. He’s thankful to still be alive, but damned if he won’t do whatever it takes to not only stay that way, but to flourish by whatever (mostly illegal) means necessary. The other thing that draws listeners in, grabbing them by their chest and crushing their lungs with its urgency, is his delivery. You can hear the conviction in his voice when he raps — accompanied by the wild look his eyes — that convinces you that everything he says is 111% factual and true.

From the moment the world first heard him claim to “Move ‘caine like a cripple / Balance weight through the hood, kids call me Mr. Sniffles,” on Clipse’s ostensible debut, “Grindin’,” it was clear that he had a different way of seeing the game. Whereas previous drug-rap impresarios had modeled their yayo-slinging tales after the plot of Scarface or Carlito’s Way, replete with glamorous women filling opulent mansions, the rapper formerly known as Terrar took a more visceral approach. Far from the sun-soaked beachfront properties of Miami Beach, he carefully crafted a more sinister world of Virginia Beach, one that more closely resembled the abandoned row houses of The Wire: “I’m from Virginia, where ain’t sh*t to do but cook…”

More importantly, he has a different way of talking about the game, with a penchant for unusual metaphors and imagery that catches the listener off-guard, while illustrating exactly what he’s saying without saying it — namely, that he sells drugs, he sells a lot of drugs, he’s very good at selling drugs, and has earned a reputation for selling drugs very well, and he conveys all this information concisely, efficiently, and most important in rap, colorfully. On “Cot Damn,” from Clipse’s seminal cocaine-seasoned debut, he wryly brags, “They call me Pusha for one reason / Cause I keep that sniff all seasons / Whether the price is up or down / I keep a mound to pitch from, you don’t have to shop around!”

After going solo in 2012 with a series of well received, very on-brand mixtapes, Wrath Of Caine, and Fear Of God Parts I and II, he began pushing the boundaries of what he was known to do well, into showing off true versatility in his craft. Push easily jumps from coolly menacing on songs like “King Push” where he raps about traps and won’t sing hooks, to a pitch-perfect Ma$e impression on “Let Me Love You.” However, he has never been content with simply trying out new flows on familiar-sounding beats, preferring to push himself (no pun intended) to find ways to rhyme over some of the most unconventional arrangements fellow V.A. resident Pharrell Williams can cook up.

He boxes and bullies the whistling blips of “Suicide” alongside Ab-Liva, paces the floor and bounces off the walls of a six-by-nine on “S.N.I.T.C.H.,” battles insane paranoia on “Untouchable.” He’s willing to switch styles per the advice of recently bailed out associate Mu, and barrels through any type of production with a scary level of poise mixed with the coiled, uncomfortable energy of a caged wolf. He knows he’s the biggest meanest thing in his world, a world where a man’s word is his bond and death lurks around every corner, transplanted to the bright lights and phony smiles of the entertainment industry. He was “untouchable” in the drug game but with no reliable way to judge for how long, so now here he is in an environment he wasn’t built for, like a shark on land; if the shark grew lungs, legs, and spider-like braids on its head, that shark would be Pusha T.

Now, those arguing the counterpoint here will most likely trot out the exhausting and overused “classics” argument, the one that states no rapper can have a claim to be the best without a consensus classic to his or her name, because what is a debate in hip-hop that doesn’t eventually go there? The main reason this argument never really holds up is because it fallaciously assumes because an artist hasn’t put out a classic means they can’t. Not to mention that many of the “best rappers” in the canon have spotty catalogs outside of those classics *cough cough Nas cough cough*.

The counterargument to that is right there in the music; compare Push at his best to any consensus classic and the potential is clear. “Crutches, Crosses, Caskets” stands up with Jay Z’s “Lyrical Exercise,” or B.I.G.’s “N***as Bleed” as an example of superb lyricism. “Keep Dealing” is as good a hustling narrative as “Allure,” as intricately detailed as “One Love,” with a darker, more lurid bent. Push can dig into the meat of those stories in such a candid way, with his characteristic fatalistic stoicism. There are no compunctions, no second thoughts, no regrets. That rawness is what draws people to Pusha’s style and makes them say, This guy is one of the best in the game today.

Another arbitrary criteria rap critics tend to saddle hip-hop performers with is their track record in rap battles. For instance, Pusha pestered Drake and Lil Wayne for years but went radio silent the moment Drake bit back. Okay, sure, the bickering between Clipse and Wayne is long-standing and well-documented, but you cannot find me one stitch of evidence, online or otherwise, that Pusha and Malice ever had anything other than respect for Aubrey from the very beginning of his career — which, incidentally, they helped get off the ground. See, for your reference: “Do What You Do,” from Comeback Season. They were also pretty much directly responsible for his earliest shows in LA, when his burgeoning CV included mostly Canadian toothpaste commercials and cable teen dramas.

Much ado is made of nothing in the hip-hop world, by folks who want nothing more than to see a fight at the flagpole after school. While battles are entertaining for a while, they ultimately have no overall net positive effect on anyone’s standing in hip-hop over time: See KRS-One vs. Nelly, or LL Cool J vs. Canibus — everyone ended up exactly where they probably would have without those battles because they appealed to different audiences, and mainstream preferences shift over time. Worst of all, nobody made any money; respect is nice, but it doesn’t put “Mildred in the Bahamas for the month / …” where “She’s probably sitting in her pajamas having lunch.”

Pusha has absolutely lived up to his greatness potential in the body of work he’s delivered over the last 15 years. He’s checked all the boxes: Lyrical dexterity, career longevity, he’s left an inimitable imprint on the hip-hop world, and he makes people talk. So what if he hasn’t quite given us the definitive project that would make him unassailable in the eyes of old heads and elitists, when in fact, he’s been so very consistent for so very long? Besides, anyone waiting for a perfect project or career from any rapper may as well cop a squat on the nearest bench for a train that ain’t coming. Even The Blueprint has “That N***a Jigga” on it, — and we’re not even going to talk about 2pacalypse Now.

Let’s also not forget, many of the so-called classics and fan favorites of the social media era only became so after a little critical hindsight and a strong dose of nostalgia. In ten years, Push may have gone from a solid B+ student in 2016 (when his last full-length album dropped) to straight-A, honor roll, perfect attendee, magna cum laude graduate in 2026 terms. He tries new things, taking a significant portion of the rap game with him when he does. He’s a lyrical heavyweight who holds his own when compared with the best of the best. If anything Pusha T is underrated, but you won’t catch him complaining about it. Sharks don’t waste time contemplating their last meal, they keep it moving, always on the hunt for the next. —Aaron Williams

Who won the argument? Let us know in the comments.

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