KING PUSH - DARKEST BEFORE DAWN: THE PRELUDE
GOOD Music/Def Jam
For his sophomore solo full-length album, Virginia rapper Pusha T tracks his ascent to hip-hop royalty with a prelude to his long-delayed magnum opus, King Push, due to be released next year.
In the 10-track release, the former member of rap duo Clipse, whose real name is Terrence Thornton, displays more of his uncanny ability to drop intricate rhymes over off-kilter and unconventional productions.
Unlike contemporaries such as Drake, Pusha does not define himself by the quantity and frequency of his releases.
As he raps on the pre-album release single, Untouchable: "Yuugh, I drops every blue moon/To separate myself from you kings of the YouTube."
But make no mistake, he is contemporary. Pusha, 38, shines a light on the current state of affairs in the United States, most prominently on album closer, Sunshine, which features guest vocals from neo-soul diva Jill Scott.
On the tune, he references African-American Freddie Gray, whose death in police custody sparked riots in Baltimore earlier this year. On other tracks, he takes aim at presidential hopeful Donald Trump's vilification of Mexicans.
While the rapper has a tendency to remind listeners of his business acumen in the verses (last month, he was announced as the president of record label Good Music, founded by hip-hop supremo Kanye West), the overall mood is sinister.
He makes plenty of references, direct and indirect, to his dark past as a hustler, in tracks such as Fifa ("Drug money kicked around like it's Fifa") and Keep Dealing ("Loving the rush, I'm living The Wire").
His beats are courtesy of the A-list of hip-hop producers. Most notable among them is hit-maker Timbaland, who marks a return to form with bizarre and unusual beats on tracks such as Got Em Covered, in which Pusha voices his disinterest in the war of words between other rappers ("Not concerned with your rap beef/ Poetic justice watching you sock puppets"). Timbaland's stop-start, gamelan-like percussions stretch the boundaries of hip-hop, but Pusha manoeuvres his verses over the beats with ease.
Elsewhere, Puff Daddy and Q-Tip provide gloomy soundscapes for Pusha's rhymes to cut through. Some of his lengthiest verses on the album, for example, move swiftly over Puff's hypnotic and minimalist beats on Crutches, Crosses, Caskets.
West contributes the production on M.P.A., in which the piano tinklings, fuzz guitar lines and slow-jam intensity are reminiscent of his much acclaimed 2010 oeuvre, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Vocal and rap cameos on the album feature old and new names. Rising R&B songbird and Grammy nominee 20-year-old Kehlani provides the album's strongest and most radio-friendly hooks on the futuristic-sounding Retribution.
On Keep Dealing, Philadelphia stalwart Beanie Sigel's gruff delivery adds heft to an already weighty album.
When a prelude album is this good, it sets a tremendously high bar for the actual King Push album.