Donald Trump can’t be bought. Among people who honestly thing Donald Trump should be our next president, that point comes up over and over. He’s a mega-billionaire, so the corporate interests that have been driving Republican party politics don’t apply to him. He’s free to say, for instance, that we shouldn’t allow Muslims into the country, and nobody can exert enough pressure on him to get him to recant. In practice, that means an insane blowhard egotist, someone who doubles down on insanity anytime he’s caught lying, is possibly the most important person in next year’s presidential election. But you can understand the seductive power there: He is a man beholden to nobody, and that makes him able to pursue his own truth, false and absurd though that truth may be. Throughout his career, Pusha T has advanced a similar narrative. To hear Pusha tell it, he doesn’t need rap fame. It’s irrelevant to him. When Jive Records put Clipse, his duo with his brother, on the shelf for years even after they made a gold-selling album, it didn’t matter. They were pissed off about it, but they were fine: “Ain’t spent one rap dollar in three years, holler.” According to Pusha’s own mythology, he’s made so much money from the drug trade — he continues to make so much money from the drug trade — that he doesn’t have to chase crossover rap money. He’s free to pursue his own truth, and that truth involves dense and convoluted shit-talk about the drug trade. And since Pusha T is one of our greatest rappers, the result works out a whole lot better than that whole Trump campaign situation.
There are holes in Pusha T’s story. He has, from time to time, chased crossover money. After the generational landmark “Grindin’,” Clipse’s second single was a straight-up party song, and their third single was a rap&B relationship track with Faith Evans. Clipse’s best-ever song, by my reckoning, wasn’t even their own; it was “What Happened To That Boy,” a collaboration with Birdman — a rapper who, Pusha has claimed again and again — Pusha does not respect. Pusha rapped on Justin Timberlake’s first solo single. He’s rapped on two different VMA broadcasts. These days, he regularly appears on dance tracks. If you’re a straight-up rap purist who’s only interested in broadcasting your realness upon the world, you maybe don’t make any of those moves. But every song I just mentioned is a great song, the Timberlake track very much included. And even as he’s made those moves, Pusha has driven his own aesthetic toward something dark and cold and heavy. Maybe he hasn’t turned away from pop success. Maybe the rap world has moved in ways that make a pop-successful Pusha T seem like an impossible thing. But Pusha has moved himself into a position where he can make albums of uncommon, uncompromising severity — albums like Darkest Before Dawn.