Album Review: Pusha’s got it down to a T

Since the massive success of Kendrick Lamar’s soul-searching concept album good kid, m.A.A.d. city late last year, it seems that rap’s mainstream has diverged into two different channels. One trend noticeable among 2013’s biggest records has been a conceptualising, self-interrogating impulse, with rappers structuring their albums thematically, airing out their insecurities, and peeling away tough-guy veneers to reveal, partially at least, the humans below. The other current, perhaps in reaction to Lamar but perhaps simply in line with the direction that hip-hop has been taking recently, has seen the money, cars and women boasts soar further and further away from plausibility and orginality. Which is why it’s a relief that, identity crisis notwithstanding, the genre can still produce an album like My Name Is My Name, one that treads the middle ground between pretension and vulgarity by bringing back the grit and bravado that you’d be forgiven for thinking had been lost in the late ‘90s.

Pusha T got his start in the rap game around the turn of the millennium as part of Virginia duo Clipse, but has been more audible in recent years through features on a load of songs by a certain Kanye West; as well as chipping in a verse on ‘Runaway’ back in 2010 he was one of the biggest presences on Cruel Summer, complementing Kanye’s paranoid histrionics with an altogether colder, more menacing approach.

The secret of his longevity has been his appeal as an all-rounder, balancing a fondness for wordplay with relentlessly intense delivery, and underscoring his favourite topics (dealing coke, dealing coke, and dealing coke) with a considered and self-aware view of the game. At a time when rappers are either begging to be taken seriously or jumping on the Bugatti bandwagon, Pusha’s back-to-basics, no bullshit approach to music is seriously refreshing.

Of course, a workmanlike approach to rapping isn’t itself enough to make a great album, which is why it’s a relief that, in terms of structure and production, My Name plays to all of Pusha’s strengths. The beats – from up-and-comers like Hudson Mohawke as well as veterans and long-time collaborators Kanye and Pharrell – are varied enough to allow experimentation with a whole wardrobe of flows; unlike some of the year’s other big rap albums (Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris for example, or Kanye’s own Yeezus), this isn’t a record that establishes a consistent atmosphere or sticks to a particular sound. And Pusha’s sparring partners are shrewdly selected toprovide an engaging contrast to his straight man act. Kendrick and Rick Ross – surely the embodiments of hip-hop’s two respective trends – each do so to great effect on ‘Nosetalgia’ and ‘Hold On’ respectively.

If My Name has a fault, though, it’s as a result of this variation, because its hooks really are awful. From Kelly Rowland to Chris Brown, the singers roped in to provide the choruses for a good half of the album’s songs are at best unnecessary and at worst abysmal, with in-vogue whiney wanker Future almost derailing the otherwise great ‘Pain’. Presumably included to provide a break from the hard-as-nails rapping, these uninspired interruptions serve only to dilute the mixture.

Not all of the tracks are besmirched by unnecessary hooks though; bangers like ‘Numbers On the Boards’ and ‘Suicide’ are nothing but start-to-finish lyrical purism, with enough attitude to more than compensate for any of the record’ssofter moments. Ultimately, if you can resist ripping your headphones apart during Future’s autotuned struggle session then it’s hard to deny that My Name Is My Name is easily one of the year’s best hip-hop albums, and a fine example of old-fashioned rap, raw and uncut.