Watching the slow implosion of Jive Records last month could’ve felt a lot like justice. The label’s notorious abuse of Clipse’s grim Hell Hath No Fury is the stuff of hip-hop legend – a Yankee Hotel Foxtrot if Wilco had a drug-dealing past. “Them crackas weren’t playing fair, Jive” famously snarled Pusha T at the end of his stone-cold verse on Mr. Me Too. It couldn’t help but feel triumphant. Sure the record bombed anyway, but it was easy thinking the label was finally getting what it deserved. Of course Clipse is in a much …
DJBooth Album Review
Sure the record bombed anyway, but it was easy thinking the label was finally getting what it deserved.
Of course Clipse is in a much different place than they were in 2006. With Malice publishing his first book and Pusha T hitching a ride as a solo artist on Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint, it’s hard to predict when, if ever, we’ll see another full-length after 2009’s solid, if safe Til The Casket Drops. This might be disheartening for critics and rapheads, but not necessarily for Pusha T – the man is living in a profound, unprecedented, and rather beguiling cultural renaissance. Since snagging a gentle verse on Kanye’s VMA-prepped showstopper Runaway and dropping a flossy mixtape of his own – all of a sudden he’s got a hyped EP and a promotional budget. In the span of a year he’s become more of a popstar than he’s ever been through a previous decade of career-building.
But Fear of God Part II: Let us Pray does not catch Pusha at his creative apex. Perhaps its commercial concessions, or the lack of his brother’s alignment, or a frank loss of touch, but Fear of God is a very plain, straightforward modern rap album. The stripped-down inventiveness of the Neptunes spacey beats are missing, the same with Pusha’s mind-boggling quips - the record sounds like it could make a lot of money, but without the memorable persona of his acclaimed and unsuccessful mid-2000s work, there’s very few reasons to buy stock.
The ten song, 45-minute suite opens with a laser-beam synth and elephant-stampede drums. In fewer than five seconds Changing Of The Guards completely demolishes any lingering memories of Pusha’s stark storytelling abilities, the money is all on the top – even the features, Diddy, 50 Cent, and Ross seem expensive. It actually feels vaguely uncanny hearing Pusha T at the top of such grandiloquence after spending so much time rapping from the musty corners of the world. The biggest strength of Clipse came from their subtlety, demystifying their coke-slinging past into something that sounded more hopeless than intimidating – but here he’s spinning spit-shined fairytales that could live on Maybach.
It doesn’t always sound bad either. In an era of monstrous, choral-backed stompers, I Still Wanna manages to hang with the best. Pusha wisely eschews any cheese for a cryptic, and oddly resonating desire to recapture the rush and easy cash of being a drug dealer, all while managing to shout-down Inkredibles’ stadium-smashing beat. Obviously Ross has no trouble with such melodrama, and unleashes his usual stormy, overlord-rap bravado, earning a well-deserved check. The two actually sound of-a-kin, strange given the obvious disparity between their relative origin stories.
The problem comes when Pusha isn’t able to create those sorts of moments often enough. Most of Fear of God feels like detached, competent, common-denominator, major-label hip-hop, which would be fine if we weren’t already aware what he’s capable of. Hearing him stumble around a brimming soul-sample (What Dreams Are Made Of) or devolving his vocabulary into plainspoken nothingness (So Obvious) or taking a crack at one of the meekest attempts at a club banger you’ll hear in a long time (Body Work) makes the rapper look deeply average, which is something he truly does not deserve.
Unsurprisingly, one of the best tunes comes directly imported from Pharrell. Trouble On My Mind has Pusha immediately finding his groove over a concentrated, atonal synth-bleat, and why wouldn’t he? This is the same guy that tackled Trill. “Behind the scenes, pull strings like Gepetto / the gun blows steam, whistles like a tea kettle.” His hyper-literate feast oozes familiar comfort, stealing the song from Tyler, the Creator with a veteran’s swag. Naturally it’s also probably one of the trickiest songs to chart, feeling much more at home on rap blogs than in car-stereos, much like the rest of Pusha’s career.
Statements like “sell-out” or “dumbed-down” are far too broad to claim with any authority, but the newfound lax to the rapper’s craftsmanship certainly feels like profiteering. It’s hard to blame the guy, being a professional musician is hard enough without a history of meddling hands, but you still wish Pusha was hungrier to be great. Right now it feels like Fear of God would be something Jive wouldn’t have any problems putting out.
DJBooth Rating - 3 Spins
Written by Luke Winkie on 11/10/11
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