Pusha T’s ‘Daytona’ Was The Underground Rap Hit Of The Year

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Pusha T’s Daytona landed at No. 4 on our 2018 critic poll’s best albums list. Check out the poll here, and our thoughts on the album’s impact below.

Much praise has been heaped on Travis Scott for having a breakthrough 2018 — deservedly so. The Houston curator refined and perfected his cavernous, melodic trap sound on Astroworld, attracting both critical acclaim and commercial success and vaulting Travis into the conversation for best rap album the year. However, if every coin has its flip side, then Travis’ opposite is certainly Pusha T, whose Daytona cracked Uproxx’s critics’ poll’s upper echelon and launched Pusha himself into the debate for the best active rapper in the game today.

While plenty of rap purists released throwback material designed to tickle listeners nostalgic fancies — Logic reunited the entire Wu-Tang Clan under one flag, while J. Cole tried his hand at Migos-esque trap rap — Pusha keyed into a very specific time and place, along with the wishful thoughts of a generation of fans hankering for a return to the days of menacing, brutal, beats-and-bars rap. Specifically, Daytona worked as a reminder of a simpler time, when Cruel Summer was only the title of GOOD Music’s compilation and not the label’s marketing strategy.

Daytona wasn’t only the most complete-sounding of Kanye West’s collaborative projects released over the summer, it was some of his most cohesive work ever. You can sort of see why he thought a sudden onslaught of quick-release, seven-song EPs would be a good idea. With Daytona as the jumping-on point, GOOD Music’s market saturation strategy seemed promising. It didn’t take long to disabuse fans of the notion that there was actually a goal or a plan past the initial publicity stunt. However, for every uneven, increasingly tardy project Kanye and the gang put out over the next five weeks, Daytona shined a bit more brightly. It’s clear that it’s the one album from the camp into which Kanye put serious effort; it seems hand-crafted compared to the slapdash Ye or the careening Nasir.

It unloads the final vestiges of Kanye’s reggae samples period, evoking memories of the era when the producer was at the height of his powers. Anyone who cavorted and bopped to “Mercy” would surely raise their hands to the beat drop on “If You Know, You Know.” Fans of Pusha’s shark-toothed witticisms have yearned for years to hear them snarled over clean, crispy chops like the one on “Santeria.” While the unconventional beats on Pusha’s prior catalog — both solo albums and alongside brother Malice as one-half of Clipse — proved that he could spit with the best of them, Kanye’s traditionalist sensibilities brought out the best in the raps.

The short running time of Daytona also helped to mitigate the limited subject matter. An EP in all but name, it smartly leaves listeners wanting more — a rare result with a one-note rapper like Push. While fellow straightforward spitters Logic and J. Cole have both earned reputations for relative consistency, making their own albums this year seem less rare, Pusha put out his last full-length project in 2015, leaving fans hungry for more. With Daytona, he served a perfectly portioned morsel that satisfied and impressed those fans, giving them something to both enjoy and anticipate. Already, he promised fans new music in 2019, and for once, it doesn’t feel like a musical overload, something many of his contemporaries — and rivals — can’t say after 2018’s exhausting deluge of content.

And of course, it can’t be ignored that Daytona sparked one of the fiercest rivalries in rap in years. The response to Pusha’s “Infrared” potshots at Drake threatened to overwhelm the hype for Pusha’s own project; fans swarming for more beef and juicy gossip damn near ignored Daytona in the wake of “Duppy Freestyle” and “The Story Of Adidon,” stunting its commercial progress as they focused on those songs without a legitimate single to draw their attention. But even in that, Pusha did what no other Drake rival had done before that — he pushed the seemingly indestructible Canadian to the brink of a loss. While both sides withdrew after the release of Scorpion washed away any lingering aftertaste of defeat for Drake and his fans — it’s hard to feel down with three No. 1 records in a year and one of the highest-selling albums of the streaming era — Pusha had bloodied one of rap’s titans, exposing the chinks in Drake’s armor and making him look shockingly mortal.

While that didn’t elevate Pusha to the level of a rap god himself, it did make him a hero to many, the Leonidas of underground, rhymes-over-everything rap. Though Daytona hasn’t sold like Scorpion or Astroworld and didn’t excite the youth like Logic or J. Cole, it proved that old dogs can still run with the pups, even if they can’t always learn new tricks. Pusha may not define a generation anymore, but he’s still drawing up the blueprints for near-perfect rap albums and standing toe-to-toe with champs. He’s outlasted the iPod, Napster, ringtones, and all-over print Bape hoodies. 15 years after “Grindin'” destroyed many a lunchroom table, he’s still here, and that’s impressive all by itself.

Daytona is out now via GOOD Music/Def Jam. Get it here. Check out more of our 2018 critics poll results here.