Quite possibly the first mainstream, urban musical genius of the 21st century, Kanye West is gifted at many things. However, as a new-school Atlas, he recently shrugged and a very bad thing happened. Of the many things for which 2013 should be best remembered, the most poignant of these is West starting to show strain from bearing the gravity of a new school globe. In re-imagining his own career from that of supremely focused and goal-oriented emcee to that of the architect of an aggressively next-level society, his level of focus and dedication to creating this environment is impressive. However, in being the creator and initial beneficiary of his own creation, it’s arguable that Mr. West (and only Mr. West) is ultimately best served in a creative space crafted in his personal passions and motivations. There may be no better proof of this argument than in studying G.O.O.D. Music—the label founded in the image of Kanye’s re-branding of the universe—and namely G.O.O.D. Music artist Pusha T’s 2013 release My Name Is My Name. As executive producer of the project, the lack of synergy between Kanye’s influence and Pusha’s obstinate, iconic style created what I felt was a highly underwhelming album. Is Kanye West a genius best beholden to his own career? Or, is he an enfant terrible reaching his terrible twos in need of time to learn how to walk in a better defined direction? Either way, it’s this columnist’s belief that save some amazing moments, My Name Is My Name was underwhelming, hot garbage and Kanye needs to get his act together, or just become a selfish monster of a creative left to his own amazing devices.
The Case For Pusha T As Gangster Rap’s Last Best Hope
Aside from the moments when Kendrick Lamar put the Rap game on alert with “Control” and mentioned, “Your career ain’t shit unless you got some Kendrick in it” during Top Dawg Entertainment’s “BET Hip Hop Awards” cypher, the choice for the most compelling emcee of 2013 begins (and ends) with Pusha T. “Numbers On The Boards” leaked as a single in April with an official release a month later, and the game was on.
At present, Rap’s an industry wherein young emcees make the starting five and old emcees sit on the bench. To continue the basketball analogy, the Rap industry has become a fundamentally unsound game defined by gimmicky fast-break offenses without much of a thought as to defensive measures being taken at any point. Young performers excel here because they are literally playing an (depending on who you ask) evolved sport. Old performers sit on the bench and grumble, yet they cannot leave the game, because by name (but not by actual fact) it’s all they know. It’s a sad, pathetic notion to consider, but it’s entirely true.
Pusha T is the realest rapper left in the game, the guy who sat on the bench for a bit, but before resigning himself to anger, got everyone in the league strung out on dope and rendered inactive for the rest of their careers. Amazingly enough, Schoolboy Q recently told MTV, “There are no more gangster rappers.” However, Q’s statements (which also included calling himself a “gangster rapper”) would appear to be short-sighted and entirely self-serving in the context of what Pusha says on the lyrical slaughter that is “Numbers On The Boards,” as well as “Nosestalgia,” his September released duet with Kendrick Lamar (intriguingly the de facto team leader of Schoolboy Q’s TDE camp). Between head butting his side bitch, contemplating dealing drugs for the fuck of it, discussing how dope his is at dealing dope, and the nature of dying (either as a dealer or an abuser) from the drug game, Pusha T isn’t just the best gangster rapper left, he’s clearly angling to be the best gangster rapper ever.
Revisiting The “Kanye West Process” Of Executive Production
If curious as to what the job of executive producer on a music album entails, and moreover, how Kanye failed Pusha, there’s no better place to examine than the Discovery Channel’s curiosity.com, which states the following in their entry:
George Martin, executive producer of the Beatles, said that an executive producer is like a movie producer and a director all rolled into one. Except for those who work for large record labels, most executive producers focus on the creative side and let music agents make the deals. The executive producer usually chooses the musicians and technicians for a record, decides where and when to record, and manages the production budget and timetable. Sometimes one gets the title of executive producer just because he's footing the bill. When a producer is independent or works for a small label, he may handle things like songwriting, vocal arrangements and sound engineering. He may also approve what the album cover looks like, as well as working on the distribution and marketing of the albums.
Now that we have clarity regarding the scope of this situation, let’s introduce Kanye West, 21st century creative genius-as-executive producer into the scene. It’s an entirely arguable point that at no point of Kanye’s career has he ever expressed a desire to learn about, or shown a particular wealth of previous knowledge of either the drug trade or gangsterism. Unlike Pharrell Williams (Pusha T’s former label head and producer/mentor), Kanye’s also not shown himself to be particularly adept at listening to and developing an artist based around first separating his own creativity from that of his artist. Every great moment of late for a Kanye West-branded artist (meaning those signed to G.O.O.D. Music) has involved Kanye attempting to outshine them. West’s appearances on songs like “Clique” could easily feel like West behaving in a manner similar to a stage parent attempting to live out their stalled dreams through their begrudgingly willing offspring. In some moments in the history of G.O.O.D. Music, the label feels as though it would be better served being known as “G.O.M.D. Music”—“getting out our dreams” being replaced by “getting out my (Kanye’s) dreams”—that reflects what actually is happening.
In discussing the weaknesses of Kanye West as Executive Producer of Pusha T’s album, it may be of value to visit an interview that “King Push” had with Josh Phelps of Washington, DC blog Brightest Young Things regarding working with Kanye West:
“The single’s ready to go, but the single has to go through the ‘Kanye West’ process of production. And, you know, you’ve heard about it, you see it every time with his albums, and at the end of the day, he’s so involved in my project that now I go through the ‘Kanye West’ process of marking off all the boxes before the album drops, the single drops, or the date is released.
I just left him with the single. It’s funny, man…I go to Paris and we go through the album and he’s like, ‘Man, here’s what I love. Here’s what I don’t love.’ And [he tells me] what he himself wants to add production wise. It’s his whole executive producer process...We go through the whole album, he listens to the lyrics—he listens to everything—and he says to me, ‘I want you to re-spit this line. I can tell you got a cold.’ And I say, ‘Alright, you know, I really did.’ And his biggest thing with me is: ‘Pusha, your biggest asset is your voice, which is your best instrument. I’d love to have a voice that cuts through music the way that yours cuts through.’
“It’s really different than what I’ve done, but I can say this: He lets me do the body of my work. He gives me the full scope of what he thinks about it, and when he’s adamant about something then he just is, and that’s just it. I’m a student when it comes to this. When I work with Kanye West, when I work with Pharrell, when I work with The-Dream, when I work with Swizz, I’m a student. I’ve never claimed to be the best song-maker, or best album-maker. I always claimed to be one of the best rappers, you know what I’m sayin’? I think that’s the difference. It’s like, man, if I’m the best rapper, I can wear that. I feel like I can go toe to toe with anybody in that. But when it comes to making records, I have no clue what the production side of life is about, especially the executive producer side of life. So, I back out…If I act like I know everything, I see myself losing.”
Before continuing, it may be wise to contrast Pusha T’s thoughts about working with Kanye against those regarding working with Pharrell Williams. He said the following in an interview with French website booska-p.com:
“‘Kanye West, a lot of times, he gives me the skeleton of a beat,’ he said. ‘He’ll play either a sample or he’ll play me like, just an idea and he’ll ask me to write a verse to what I like in that idea…I’ll lay that verse down on that part of the beat, and then he takes the record and creates around my verse, versus Pharrell, a lot of times, I’ll go into the studio and he already has the beat, and then I lay a verse to the beat and it’s a done deal."
“He added, ‘Both of these guys are perfectionists in their own right. Pharrell, I think he works a little bit off of feeling, and I think Kanye is a master of structure and a master of tapping into knowing what people are going to reaction to and respond to. He’s really like a hit-maker and having that knowledge of what’s going on in America and…the world and exploiting that.’”
Pusha T is arguably one of the few legendary emcees still relevant in the current era. In working with his caliber of emcee, is it wiser to allow them the ability to tell their own story with a minimal filter (as seems to be the case of his time with Pharrell Williams); or, do you do as Kanye did on My Name Is My Name, and color their socially, culturally and verbally with what West called “the vernacular of the times” in his interview with BBC Radio 1’s Zane Lowe? Clearly, both of these conceptual constructs have worth, but one certainly may have a more populist appeal.
Pinpointing Where Kanye & Pusha T’s Union Went Wrong
The last time Pusha T rapped on a project featuring executive production by Pharrell Williams was 2009’s Clipse release Til The Casket Drops. According to data from Nielsen SoundScan, the album sold 31,000 copies in its first week. The prior recording that featured a Williams/Pusha T connection was 2006’s very well received Hell Hath No Fury, which sold 78,000 copies in its initial week of sale. Comparatively, the Kanye/Pusha T executive producer/artist connection teamed for 74,000 first week sales. Usually, with album sales figures, rules of attrition for numbers of records moved are necessary. However, consider that since 2006, album sales figures have stagnated, while it can be argued that Pusha T’s level of renown has grown. Thus, one could feasibly extrapolate that My Name Is My Name—given the extraordinarily strong performances on the tracks leading into the album’s release—should have been the album that catapulted him on a level of sales figures alone to a level closer to the 793,000 album first week recently achieved by Eminem. Pusha himself may believe that he released the year’s best Rap album. However, as a solid number two artist on the G.O.O.D. Music roster, having the type of year that Pusha T is having lyrically on some of the most stark and creative Rap landscapes of the year—with a well-known label and high marketing potential behind him–selling roughly 1/11th as many albums in week one as Slim Shady should be considered an absolute and complete fail by all parties involved in the production and marketing of the album.
These three things are true: Hindsight is 20/20, I have no first-degree knowledge of Pharrell Williams, and I do not know the current emotional state of Pusha T. However, I can’t imagine that the one-two punch of rapping in a manner similar to once-popular Bad Boy rhymer Ma$e and having Kelly Rowland sing a hook on his song are two things that are within the wheelhouse of Pusha T’s set of talents and/or expectations of his fanbase. However, on “Let Me Love You,” both of these things occur—both under the executive production of Kanye West. It’s clear that there are other moments as well that are meant to use Pusha T’s clear, distinct and distinguished voice as a dissonant instrument. The Ab-Liva collaboration “Suicide” features production with minimalist squelches that sound akin to a minor-key “Ni**as in Paris.” The combo of sour and salty that Kanye likely wanted is certainly progressive, but does not work as Pusha ain’t salty about shit. With or without Rap money, I think he’s still the one of the hardest and realest artists in the industry. These are two of many examples of seemingly inexcusable errors by Kanye West in executive producing this album. In misrepresenting the creative strengths of his own artist, Kanye created unnecessary imperfections on by what all means—given the level of talent and consistently top-tier creative output of the artist involved—should be a perfect album.
Pusha T is a better rapper, artist, personality and creative force than was shown on My Name Is My Name. It can be argued that he is to street reality what Kanye West is to avant-garde showmanship. Thus, it may have been best if these two artists on the same level worked with and not for each other to achieve best results. However, instead of a duet, Kanye executive produced Pusha T. The one question that must be asked then, is why this would need to happen? If you listen to West’s rant at the beginning of the live listening session for My Name Is My Name in New York City, when Yeezus says, “Don’t act like y’all didn’t base your whole shit, your whole lifestyle off of this nigga Pusha T,” it’s an impressive and true statement. However, is it possible that some other notion could be at work, too?
Maybe Kanye is at a point of his career where he’s bored and wanted to see if he could replicate the executive production excellence of Pharrell Williams? Yes, as absurd as it seems, it’s entirely possible to contemplate this idea. Just as simply as I researched the numbers, Kanye can see that Hell Hath No Fury—likely one of the best respected Rap albums of the past 10 years—only sold 78,000 copies in its all important first week of release. Thus, in a show of hubris, Kanye could believe that, even in a depressed album market, that he could craft a Pusha T album that could outsell Pharrell’s work with The Clipse. As well, he could do so by attempting to paint a Pusha T picture using his own paints and creative influence, and not those of fellow master King Push.
Sometimes—as an August 16, 2012 headline reads from Fast Company—“You can’t be effective [as a leader] when you’re too smart for your own good.” In overestimating his own abilities and thus, quite possibly accidentally devaluing the talents of Pusha T, Kanye West has likely suffered his greatest public defeat. The nature of the question of if Kanye will recover from this failure rests squarely on the same shoulders upon which he has decided to attempt to balance the rest of the creative universe. Maybe Kanye needs to think about adjusting his heavy, and likely tiring workload. The creative forces he’s working with at present have him wearing Confederate flags, preparing to marry Kim Kardashian, being a rock star, releasing Yeezus (an album that arguably nobody had to buy but everyone had to hear) and more. Over-executive producing an album that maybe he didn’t need to executive produce definitely took things in Kanye’s life a step too far. However, if Kanye were to tell me that he knew the kind of 2013 that Pharrell was going to have—and that he didn’t want him to win at everything—then maybe (just maybe) I’d reconsider being so harsh.
Marcus Dowling is a veteran Washington, DC-based writer who has contributed to a plethora of online and print magazines and newspapers over the past fifteen years. Follow him on Twitter at @marcuskdowling.