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On ‘It’s Almost Dry,’ Pusha T plays the long game

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    On ‘It’s Almost Dry,’ Pusha T plays the long game NPR

The Martin Scorsese of street rap — that’s how Pusha T sees himself these days.

The Virginia Beach, Va. artist — government name Terrence LeVarr Thornton — has grounds to do so. He first rose through the ranks of hip-hop in the ’90s and early 2000s in the group Clipse with his brother, who now performs as No Malice. Then in 2010, Pusha T broke out as a solo artist, signing to Kanye West‘s G.O.O.D. Music label. This year, his newest album It’s Almost Dry became his first to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.

From the road, Pusha T joined NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe to discuss the making of the record, spurring competition between producers Pharrell Williams and West and staying on top of a decades-long career in hip-hop.

The following interview has been condensed and edited. To listen to the audio version, click the link above.


Ayesha Rascoe, Weekend Edition: I want to start off with that Martin Scorsese comparison. Martin Scorsese is known for making gangster movies, and you’re known for rapping about selling cocaine. You’ve even called yourself “cocaine’s Dr. Seuss.” What’s that parallel you’re drawing there?

Pusha T: Basically, of course there are times in Scorsese’s [filmography] where he ventures off from gangster films, but for the majority Scorsese makes a very particular type of movie that culturally we all have gravitated towards. And he does it very well. It’s iconic. I look at my rhymes and my content and my music and my discography the same way — I do something very specific and I do it very, very well.

I’m listening to you, I’m listening to Jay-Z, I’m listening to [other rappers] — and I love the wordplay. I’m feeling the energy of it.

I think a lot of it is energy and aspiration. Rap — this is a whole lifestyle. This is a whole culture. Rap teaches you how to live and aspire. Man, it teaches you how to dress sometimes. There are so many different avenues and so many other things that you can take away from an album like It’s Almost Dry. And I would say aspiration is one.

Turning to It’s Almost Dry, where does that name come from?

It speaks to art and creating a masterpiece. Everyone’s always waiting on that masterpiece and you always have to tell them that it’s almost dry, it’s almost ready.

Half of the album is produced by Pharrell Williams, who you’ve been making music with since the very beginning of your career. The other half is produced by Kanye West, who was a huge part of you [branching out] as a solo artist. How does working with both of them differ?

I would say that me and Kanye connect very deeply on very purist, obscure hard samples — hard drums. Very minimal. He likes to treat my voice like an instrument. He loves mixtape Pusha T. He loves that, so he makes records that lean heavy in that vein.

Pharrell is always trying to turn me into a character. He definitely is big on composition and the actual songwriting — cadence, flows, melodies. [He’s] always trying to turn even the darkest or hardest of records into some level of hit, you know? That’s the difference between those two to me.

Was it kind of like a competition, because you had half and half? Was it fun?

It turned very competitive. And mind you, I’m doing this album really between Miami, Florida and LA. I could get in the groove and catch a record and fly to Miami to be with Pharrell, then fly to LA and be like, “Look what we did.” And Kanye will perk up and be like “Oh really? That’s what y’all on? Okay.” Boom — before I know it, he’s throwing me beats like, “Take this. Finish this.” Then I go back to Miami and say, “He heard that — and he gave me this.” I just start pitting the two energies versus each other the whole time.

Then it got to a point where, for “Rock N Roll” featuring Kid Cudi, Kanye himself couldn’t find the drums that he liked for the record. He was like, “Man, take this to Pharrell. Tell him to put some drums on it. I want to hear his drums on it.” That was the one record that they actually collaborated on. With that being said, there were other people who were trying to find drums, and I would be playing it and Kanye would walk in and spaz out. He’d be like “What is that? Throw all those drums away, I don’t wanna hear nobody’s drums but Pharrell’s drums on this record.”

Kanye can be controversial, to say the least.

Very much so.

Does that ever affect the making of the music, or do you ever pull him aside on a personal level and go, “Hey, Ye — maybe pull back a little bit?”

We talk about everything that goes on with him. I always lend him an ear, and I always speak to him and give my opinions. Kanye is just who he is, though. He has a very strong personality. He just wants what he wants, and he wants it a particular way. We definitely bump heads or disagree about quite a few things, but I think that where we’re compatible is that he knows that I’m just giving him my honest point of view. When he speaks to me, he’s like “Man, when I talk to you, I actually get to look at things outside of myself.”

I want to ask you about the song, “Call My Bluff.” I know you were talking about getting into character. You were watching Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker movie a lot working on that song. Tell me about that process.

You know Pharrell just thinks that me becoming a character is the next level to my career. He feels like I’ve been a quintessential rapper the whole time, but yet I haven’t really tapped into a character. So we would watch Joker and he’d be like, “Man this is who you are! You laugh at things you’re not even supposed to be laughing at. This is you.”

I’m like, “Damn bro, that’s what you think about your man?” So we started actually watching the movie, right? And then it turned into us watching the movie on silent, and he would make music to the energy of the TV. It tells you the energy that you’re supposed to be in. That’s how we continued to create his portion of the album.

You have longevity in hip-hop. What do you think longevity looks like for hip-hop artists right now? Because there was a long time where rappers really didn’t have that long span of being popular and they would get older and get pushed aside. But now it’s different, right? Everybody’s like, who’s going to be the Rolling Stones for hip-hop?

Well that’s my goal. My goal is to see how far I can really take this competitively. I don’t want to just exist in rap or just make records that aren’t considered classics. It’s funny you mentioned the Rolling Stones as a group, but in talking about this, Rolling Stone just made a top 200 list of hip-hop albums of all time, and I was on that list three times. I want to keep making albums that will end up on all of these lists. If I stop making albums that don’t garner that type of fanfare or attention, then I don’t want to make music anymore.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Martin Scorsese of street rap – that’s how Pusha T sees himself these days. And the Virginia Beach artist, government name Terrence LeVarr Thornton, has grounds to do so. He rose through the ranks of hip hop in the ’90s and 2000s in the group CLIPSE with his brother, currently known as No Malice. Then in 2010, Pusha T broke out as a solo artist and signed to Kanye West’s GOOD Music label. Now, this year, his newest album, “It’s Almost Dry,” reached number one on the Billboard 200 chart.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “DREAMIN OF THE PAST”)

PUSHA T: (Rapping) Made a way for ourselves. We ain’t need no wishes. It’s levels. It’s layers, so pray for the players. We hollowed the walls in back of bodegas. I got plenty. It’s so many, yeah. They say, give me, he got plenty, yeah.

RASCOE: To talk about that record and how it fits into the context of his decades-long career, Pusha T joins us from tour. Pusha, welcome to the program.

PUSHA T: What’s up? What’s up? How you doing?

RASCOE: I’m doing good. I’m really glad to be talking to you. I want to start off with that Martin Scorsese comparison. Martin Scorsese is known for making gangster movies, and you’re known for rapping about selling cocaine.

PUSHA T: Yes. Correct.

RASCOE: You know, you’ve even called yourself cocaine’s Dr. Seuss. Like, what’s that parallel you’re drawing there?

PUSHA T: Well, basically, you know, of course, there are times in Scorsese’s discography where he ventures off from gangster films, but for the majority, Scorsese makes a very particular type of movie that culturally we all have gravitated towards. And he does it very well. It’s iconic. And I look at my rhymes and my content and my music and my discography the same way. I do something very specific, and I do it very, very well.

RASCOE: I mean, obviously, the wordplay that you are known for – and that’s like what I love about hip hop and rap, even though like I grew up in Durham, N.C., so I didn’t grow up in – like, I don’t know anything about the streets.

PUSHA T: Oh, but let me tell you something. Durham is in the – Durham got hood. Don’t play.

RASCOE: It did – no, it do. It do. No, it do got hood.

PUSHA T: Don’t do that. Don’t you dare. Hold on, you told me you from Durham?

RASCOE: I’m from Durham.

PUSHA T: Like, do you know – like my friends would go down to – bro, no, no, no, no. We’re not going to do this. We not even going to do this.

RASCOE: (Laughter) No, Durham is the hood.

PUSHA T: Yes.

RASCOE: Like, I had other family from other parts of North Carolina who would be like, we don’t go to Durham. It’s dangerous.

PUSHA T: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I know.

RASCOE: (Laughter). But I did not live that lifestyle.

PUSHA T: That’s all right.

RASCOE: There was – I wasn’t a part of that.

PUSHA T: OK.

RASCOE: But obviously, I’m listening to you. I’m listening to Jay-Z. I’m listening to others. And I love the wordplay. I love like – I’m not doing any of this. But, you know, if they rapping about coke boys or whatever, like I’m feeling the wordplay. I’m feeling the energy of it.

PUSHA T: Right. I think a lot of it is energy and aspiration. Yo, rap? This is a whole lifestyle. This is a whole culture. This is like – rap teaches you how to live and aspire and, man, it teaches you how to dress sometimes. There’s so many other different avenues and so many other different things that you can take away from an album like “It’s Almost Dry.” And I would say aspiration is one.

RASCOE: And so turning to “It’s Almost Dry,” where does that name come from?

PUSHA T: Oh, man, “It’s Almost Dry” is – it speaks to, you know, art and just, like, creating a masterpiece. And everyone’s always waiting on that masterpiece. And you always have to tell them that it’s almost dry. It’s almost ready.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “DIET COKE”)

PUSHA T: (Rapping) Imaginary players ain’t been coached right. Master recipes under stove lights. The number on this jersey is the quote price. You ordered Diet Coke. That’s a joke, right?

RASCOE: With this album, half of it is produced by Pharrell, who you’ve been making music with since the very beginning of your career, very famously. The other half is produced by Kanye West – we know him – who was a huge part of, obviously, you as a solo artist. Like how does working with both of them differ?

PUSHA T: I would say that me and Kanye connect very deeply on just like a very purist, obscure hard samples, hard drums, very minimal. He likes to treat my voice like an instrument. He loves, like, mixtape Pusha T. He loves that. So he makes records that lean heavy in that vein.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “JUST SO YOU REMEMBER”)

COLONEL BAGSHOT: (Singing) Tomorrow never comes until it’s too late.

PUSHA T: (Rapping) Just so you remember who you dealing with. The number don’t change. I know who the chemist is. Brick by brick, we kept open dealerships. Mitch by mitch, we built up our villages.

PUSHA T: Pharrell is always trying to turn me into a character. He definitely is big on composition and song, the actual song-writing, cadence, flows, melodies, always trying to turn even the darkest or hardest of records into some level of hit, you know? And that’s the difference between those two to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “NECK AND WRIST”)

PUSHA T: (Rapping) First in the Beach with a million-dollar auto. Bring the cameraman, we can shoot our own Narcos. 812 matte black, looking like charcoal. I promise you the floor plan’s nothing like the model.

PHARRELL WILLIAMS: (Singing) Neck and wrist don’t lie.

RASCOE: I mean, I want to ask you about the song “Call My Bluff.” I know you were talking about getting into character. You were watching Joaquin Phoenix’s “Joker” movie a lot working on that song, getting into the character. Tell me about that process.

PUSHA T: Yeah. You know, Pharrell just thinks that me becoming a character is the next level to my career. He feels like I’ve been a quintessential rapper for the whole time, but yet, you know, I haven’t really tapped into, like, a character. And so we would watch the Joker, and he’d be like, man, this is who you are. He was like, you laugh at things you’re not even supposed to be laughing at. He was like, this is, like, you. I’m like, damn, bro, this is what you think about your man?

RASCOE: (Laughter).

PUSHA T: So we started actually, like, watching the movie, right? And then it turned into us watching the movie on silent, and he would make music to the energy of just the TV.

RASCOE: Oh, OK.

PUSHA T: It tells you the energy that you’re supposed to be in. You know, that’s how we continued to create his portion of the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “CALL MY BLUFF”)

PUSHA T: (Rapping) Calling my bluff, going to answer hello. Service with a smile when I hand out halos. Shot clock shooters, when I point them, they go. Now everybody asking, what happened? They know.

RASCOE: I wanted to ask you, because, obviously, you have longevity – right? – in hip-hop. Like what do you think longevity looks like for hip hop artists right now? Because there was a long time where rappers really didn’t have that long span of being popular, and they would kind of get older. And it’d be like, OK, you not hot anymore, and you were…

PUSHA T: Right, right.

RASCOE: They were kind of pushed aside. But now it’s different, right? Like everybody was like, who’s going to be like the Rolling Stones for hip-hop?

PUSHA T: Right. Oh, man.

RASCOE: So how do you feel about that?

PUSHA T: Well, that’s my goal. Like, my goal is to see how far I can really take this competitively. I don’t want to just exist in rap or just make records that aren’t considered, you know, classics or things like that. Like, it’s funny you mentioned the Rolling Stones as a group, but in talking about this, Rolling Stone just made a top 200 list of hip-hop albums of all time, right? And I was on that list three times. You know, I want to keep making albums that will end up on all of these lists. If I stop making albums that don’t garner that type of fanfare or attention, then I don’t want to make music anymore.

RASCOE: And that is Pusha T, with his No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart, “It’s Almost Dry.” Thanks to him for joining us.

PUSHA T: Rap album of the year. Rap album of the year.

RASCOE: He said it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SCRAPE IT OFF”)

PUSHA T: (Rapping) New toys, convoys. Hundred karats on my neck, my boy, that a hundred bunny rabbits trying to get, my boy. Tweaker, tweaker, tweaker, run. Tweaker, run. My boy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Written by: NPR

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