Pusha T is one of the greatest living rappers, and he knows it. “I feel like I’m the last rap superhero,” he recently told Rolling Stone. A two decade veteran with hard-earned cred among peers and fans, King Push has positioned himself in a sphere of his own, looking down on the rap game from above with scorn. While hip hop culture becomes increasingly fickle and youth-obsessed, the 38-year-old’s retrograde dedication to lyricism and an ice-cold dope-boy persona remains uncompromising (who else has the confidence to share their lyrics on Genius before the album drops?). In support of his latest and greatest solo effort, King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude, the self-described “Kim Jong of the crack song” made his overdue New Zealand debut last night at Auckland’s The Studio, treating fans to an intense career-spanning set that left most hungry for more.
I must admit that I approached Pusha T’s live show with a little trepidation: rap gigs are notoriously hit-and-miss, often lazy (Kool Keith), indulging in lame pandering (Snoop Dogg), plagued by sound problems (Earl Sweatshirt), or some combination of these. As the set launched with underwhelming throwbacks from his mixtapes, I began to worry that this would be another such disappointment. Thankfully my fears were soon cast aside as the newly-anointed President of G.O.O.D. Music introduced himself in characteristic fashion:
“I go by the name Pusha T. I am one half of Clipse… You can also call me, El Presidente.”
Boisterous “GOOD! MUSIC!” chants segued into a series of Pusha’s best-loved feature verses: ‘So Appalled’. ‘Runaway’. ‘Mercy’. ‘New God Flow’. The crowd — probably the most testosterone-heavy I have encountered — went HAM. Kanye West’s shadow looms large as Pusha’s foremost collaborator/producer since going solo, but he’s not shy about embracing it, talking up Ye’s new track and shouting out his label mates to overwhelming audience approval. Highlights from 2013’s impressive My Name is My Name follow, including ‘King Push’, ‘Nosetalgia’ and his crowning achievement, ‘Numbers on the Board’. It’s at least 30 minutes into the performance before he introduces something off the new album — which is already feeling like a classic — and both ‘Untouchable’ and ‘M.F.T.R.’ go down well. “Y’all know about that shit, huh?” he asks, more proud than surprised.
Pusha is light on crowd work throughout, only occasionally indulging in a “Hands in the air!” or “You ready to make some noise?” cliche, and even then he doesn’t seem particularly committed to it. He’s at his most animated when ranting about the current state of rap (slyly throwing shade at Young Money’s “victims” as a precursor to ‘Crutches, Crosses, Caskets’) or, forever the hustler, repeatedly pimping his new album (“Everybody go get that Darkest Before Dawn“) and label (“Thank you for supporting G.O.O.D. Music”). Like a true businessman, it seems as though Pusha has talking points.
The stage set up is bare bones: a DJ/backing rapper (who occasionally scratches) and a roving back-up vocalist of questionable quality to sing hooks. It’s only recently that Pusha has graduated from being an opening act for the likes of Kanye, and unfortunately it shows. While his set had great moments in the middle and the overall delivery was solid, particularly on the songs from My Name is My Name and Darkest Before Dawn, it moved in fits and starts and lost momentum by the encore at the one-hour mark. I couldn’t help but wonder how the performance might have been improved by the presence of someone else for Pusha to bounce off of, as he did successfully for years in the seminal duo Clipse (and as Run the Jewels have proven remarkably adept at). On wax Pusha T is a real contender for the title of Greatest Rapper Alive, and the forthcoming King Push LP should only bolster his claim. I’m eager to see the quality and ambition of his live act catch up with his studio perfectionism.