Inside Pusha T’s Controversial ‘Daytona’: Kanye, Drake, and That Gross Whitney Houston Cover
The Virginia Beach rapper’s third studio album may just be his masterpiece.
“They tweet about the length I made ‘em wait—the fuck you expect? When a nigga got a cape and he great.” — Pusha T, “The Games We Play”
Pusha T’s third album arrived like so many of the best contemporary music releases: with almost no fanfare or traditional promo. The former Clipse rhymer hosted a listening party in NYC earlier in the week, and Daytona touched down late Thursday night/early Friday morning. Within hours the fans had spoken, and Pusha’s latest set had the web abuzz. For good reason—the concise 7-track album is the most focused, streamlined release of Pusha’s solo career. The coke tales that made him famous won’t ever go away, but they’re a framework on which Pusha T hangs his ruminations on loss, contradictions and paranoia.
Kanye West’s involvement in the album has been a major point of attention since West made his controversial return to Twitter. He shared album release dates for projects by Pusha T, Nas and Teyana Taylor, and it was confirmed that West was handling all of the production. Fans had been anticipating the release of King Push ever since 2015’s King Push: Darkest Before Dawn but there was no real indicator whether this would be a reimagining of that project or an entirely new album. Pusha T would explain that he changed the title once the themes of the album came into focus, and as he explained via Twitter, Daytona “represents the fact that I have the luxury of time. That luxury only comes when u have a skill set that your confident in.”
Being that Kanye West is intent on remaining the most controversy-baiting star in music, he made another last-minute change to Pusha’s latest release.
When Daytona was made available May 25, it was released with a cover image that shocked and stunned many observers. Amidst reports that West shelled out $85,000, the image was a 2006 National Enquirer photo of late pop superstar Whitney Houston’s bathroom covered in drug paraphernalia. Houston accidentally drowned in a hotel bathtub back in 2012, with autopsies revealing she’d suffered from heart disease attributed to extended cocaine use.
“He changed my artwork last night at 1 a.m. He wasn’t feeling it,” Pusha T told Power 105’s Angie Martinez. “[Originally], the artwork—it was pictures that we all agreed on.”
Houston’s cousin, Damon Elliott, spoke to People magazine after the album’s release and expressed his disgust.
“[She was] frantic,” Elliot said of his daughter. “She sent me this picture from the album cover and I immediately got sick to my stomach because it took me right back to six years ago.”
The cover art is the latest in a string of West-related episodes that have seemed like deliberate attempts to troll fans. Following his pro-Trump rhetoric and odd interviews, suddenly choosing to use this image of this particular star—one who is beloved and whose death is still fresh in the collective consciousness of Ye’s fanbase—smacks of the kind of hubris that Kanye seems to revel in these days. And it’s a shame that he felt shock tactics were necessary, considering how good the music is on Daytona.
“If You Know You Know” is the kind of anthem you’d expect from Pusha, name-dropping everything from De La Soul to “Niggas In Paris” before the West-produced beat even drops. For the most part, Daytona doesn’t aim for glossy, stratospheric arena rap, but this is the kind of dope-boy theme that sounds like victory music for trapping. Pusha back.
Pusha T has said that he was especially inspired by Raekwon’s 1995 classic Only Built 4 Cuban Linx while recording this album, and “The Games We Play” is the most indicative of the album’s Wu-inspired spirit. The track had been circulating for almost a year after a snippet hit social media in 2017. Crate-digging for a guitar lick from Booker T. Averheart, the track is full of space, with punchy horns and a percussive shuffle forming the backdrop for Pusha T to go full Pusha.
The emphasis on lyricism is apparent throughout Daytona—this is not a hook-driven album at all, as Pusha T’s rhymes are front and center over some of Kanye’s least ostentatious production. It makes for a welcome and raw listening experience, an indicator that everyone involved knew it was best to make a creative album that played to Pusha T’s strengths as opposed to swinging for some sort of calculated attempt to make a stereotypically “big” album. The bottom-rattling “Come Back Baby” opens with a George Jackson sample, as Pusha unapologetically lists the benefits of having dope money. He’s not just talking about material—despite bragging about having a “glow off” and “this watch face”—he’s also recognizing how money helps him build. The muddy morality of the game has always been a fascinating talking point; but in a country where most of the good was built on a burial ground of bad, it’s hard to not understand the logic that says the ends justify the means.
“Santeria” offers a sick sample of Soul Mann & the Brothers’ cover of “Bumpy’s Lament” and features Pusha at his most tortured, with references to the death of Pusha T’s former road manager Devon “Day Day” Pickett. It’s the best track here, and Pusha’s venom is palatable, as is his regret. “Awaken my demons, you can hear that man screamin’,” he raps.
Kanye West makes what feels like an obligatory appearance on “What Would Meek Do?” Pusha T and Meek Mill were targets of Drake’s ire on “Two Birds, One Stone” in 2016, and this is a verbal shot directly at all haters. But what should have been Pusha T and Meek Mill rallying against Drizzy is morphed into something else by Kanye’s verse, which finds him expectedly defensive about his recent antics.
“Am I too complex for ComplexCon? / Everything Ye say cause a new debate / You see, he been out of touch, he cannot relate / His hallway too long, bitch too bad / Got a surrogate, his kid get two dads.” – Kanye West, “What Would Meek Do?”
The track’s chest-thumping is merely a preamble, however. There’s no shortage of confrontation on Daytona, but it’s not until the end of the album that you really feel the aggressive spirit that’s been bubbling under the service. Pusha slams crossover aspirations, but it’s not just the idea of kissing the establishment’s ass that burns him.
“Remember Will Smith won the first Grammy? And they ain’t even recognize Hov until “Annie.’ So I don’t tapdance for the crackas and sing mammy. Cuz I’m pose to juggle these flows and nose candy.” — Pusha T, “Infrared”
The album closer “Infrared” is the track that set the web on fire. Over another ghostly percussive beat, Pusha T pops off, aiming at longtime adversary Drake—with some digs at Birdman—and reigniting the war of words that’s been waging for years between the two. It didn’t take Drake 24 hours before he responded with his “Duppy Freestyle,” unloading with both barrels on the G.O.O.D. Music prez.
“What do you really think of the nigga that's making your beats? / I’ve done things for him I thought that he never would need / Father had to stretch his hands out and get it from me / I pop style for 30 hours, then let him repeat / Now, you popping up with the jokes, I’m dead, I’m asleep / I just left from over by y’all putting pen to the sheets / Tired of sitting quiet, and helping my enemies eat.” – Drake, “Duppy Freestyle”
Daytona is a triumph for Pusha T, no doubt. The VA representer has been primed for a major artistic statement and, while his lyricism has never been questioned, he hadn’t quite delivered the kind of singular release that fully embodied his artistry and captured the public’s collective imagination. Daytona gives him the feather-in-the-cap his acclaimed career was missing post-Clipse, and his rejuvenated beef with Drake can only help both. He keeps Drake from becoming lost in a haze of chart-chasing and Drake’s response drags Pusha’s name into mainstream quarters that may not have even known he had a new album.
The quality of the album supersedes any trending topics, beefs or scandalous covers, but that cover does stand as a stark reminder that we still play fast and loose with the pain of our most venerated artists. And rappers still aren’t leery of using Black women’s pain for questionable messaging. Pusha T has put in that work and it deserves to be lauded—in spite of that exploitative cover. Nonetheless, the cover is part of the art, and if this is the statement Kanye West wanted to make, one has to wonder what that statement is supposed to be. Daytona is full of highs and the brevity only emphasizes how strong this project is. It didn’t need the controversy to get attention; Pusha T’s music speaks for itself. Maybe somebody should have reminded Kanye.