How Pusha T Positioned Himself for Longevity
by Herbert Lui
On March 24, 2022, while he was eating spicy chicken wings during the press run leading up to his latest album It’s Almost Dry, Pusha T said:
“I am the Martin Scorsese of street raps.” Even just creatively, Scorsese gives you The Departed, Goodfellas, and a host of other joints. You never say, ‘Hey, I want him to make a love story.’ That’s how I want you to look at me rap-wise.”
It’s a response to people who, for more than a decade, have been wondering if Push would ever expand his subject matter beyond street raps.
The 45-year-old artist’s music may not get the sales numbers it once did in the peak Neptunes days, but he knows his audience and sticks to making music for them.
Push’s manager Steven Victor has talked about how they prioritize creativity over commercially-driven decisions. While Push is no stranger to the Billboard charts, his latest effort brings his work to a new commercial zenith: It’s Almost Dry debuted at the top of the Billboard 200. Consistently pursuing creativity and quality over commerce and fame has been a consistent theme for Push in his career. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s one of the many reasons why he has outlasted most of his peers from the coke rap era.
How King Push got to this point
Push started his career as one-half of Clipse with his older brother, Malice. As a group, Clipse had faced a turbulent early career in the 90s, but gained fame and recognition for its debut album Lord Willin’ (2002) and its breakthrough song, “Grindin’.”
In spite of its woes with various record labels (getting dropped from Elektra, suing Jive, amongst other tussles), Clipse followed up with the critically acclaimed sophomore album, Hell Hath No Fury (2006), and a series of We Got It 4 Cheap mixtapes in the mid-2000s. But by 2009, the group was at a crossroads after releasing its third studio album, Till The Casket Drops, to declining commercial success. Clipse went on a hiatus in 2010, Malice became No Malice and turned to Christianity, and Push was on his own.
Push’s solo breakthrough moment almost didn’t happen
At this point, opportunities were coming and going for Push and his manager Steven Victor. One such opportunity came through a phone call from collaborator Rick Ross. Ross was recording in Hawaii with Kanye West (currently Ye), and West wanted to record with Push. When Push and Victor arrived, they spent a few weeks out there but didn’t accomplish much. Unimpressed, Push decided to pass on a subsequent follow-up trip, but Victor headed out on his own to explore the opportunity.
While Pusha T and Steven Victor were exploring an offer from another record label, Victor knew that creatively working with Kanye would’ve been a better fit. Victor and Kanye met, Victor bought time and urged Push to fly back down to Hawaii. Push made the trip, got into his groove during the now-immortalized My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) recording sessions, and placed multiple verses on the album. That led to Push joining Kanye at the MTV VMAs to perform “Runaway.” A few years later, Push and Victor would go on to take on leading roles (President and COO, respectively) at Ye’s label G.O.O.D Music.
Push’s career would’ve turned out very differently if Victor hadn’t boarded that plane. While audiences and critics received Kanye’s latest release, 808s and Heartbreak (2008), with less enthusiasm than his prior body of work, Victor understood the direction that Kanye was moving in with Fantasy, and saw the opportunity for Pusha T to contribute, as well as the potential for creative elevation it held. This outweighed the commercial opportunity from the other record label.
It turned out to be the perfectly-timed stimulus package that took Pusha T’s solo career to the next level. Dan has written:
“Who comes back from Hawaii with gainful employment and on a trajectory for the company’s top leadership role? Now THAT is a stimulus package! It’s low-key, the type of job creation story that would have made the Obama administration proud.”
Despite the early boost, Push’s ascension as a solo artist still had ups and downs like Clipse’s run in the 2000s; fortunately, the tumult from the previous decade prepared him for the chaos in the next.
Street rap appeal and corporate deals
Push and Ye make for an undeniable creative pair, akin to the hip-hop equivalent of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Though Push would probably never admit it publicly, working with Ye—for over a decade—is no easy feat (just ask Jay-Z, John Legend, Big Sean, and the list goes on).
Even early on, Push experienced Ye’s label politics, like the beef that started with Consequence’s exclusion from an important cover story (they later patched things up). In 2016, Ye infamously, and enthusiastically, endorsed Trump’s presidency to the horror of the public, while Push had endorsed Clinton. Push also had to deal with the backlash of Ye’s “slavery was a choice” TMZ appearance. He supported Ye throughout while remaining true to his own beliefs. Ye’s spontaneity is a creative blessing, but difficult to manage.
Despite the blessing and challenges of the Ye co-sign, Push still had to maintain relevance and adapt his coke rap style. Push wrote and recorded with Future, Rick Ross, and even briefly explored EDM.
To stay steady amidst this chaos, Push and his team tapped into the value an artist created outside of just music. Joe Budden has mentioned Push inspired him as a model for how to keep growing after the age of 40. Combined with his self-reported millions earned through Adidas and his G.O.O.D Music presidency (which he describes in “Untouchable”), Push’s art serves as the foundation for him to build his legacy and relationships (“A trapper turned rapper can morph into Puff!”).
In 2012, Push first started working with Adidas. They started with brand activations, (which included concerts, and appearances like this one). That eventually led to Push getting his own sneaker deal. It took several years to develop the relationship, starting with the standard low royalties that entertainers are offered (Victor says, “Sneaker deals are like shit.”) and moving the rate up as they did more business together. In 2019, Pusha T and Adidas announced that they signed a multi-million, multi-year deal.
While many G.O.O.D Music artists have worked with Adidas (including Big Sean, Desiigner, and Teyana Taylor), the relationship and deal worked particularly well for Push because of his prior work in high fashion and streetwear. In 2008, Clipse started the Play Cloths line during its We Got It 4 Cheap mixtape tours. It served as a revenue stream during its hiatus, enabling Clipse to give its mixtapes away for free). Play Cloths grew from distribution in 30 stores to 150 after several years of operation. Push would be more active with the brand when he was a solo artist, doing meet and greets at the stores to better understand both the fans and retailers.
Play Cloths products were more than just merch. Push wanted to separate the brand from his own brand, Clipse’s brand, and allow it to stand on its own. The brand was a vehicle for other corporate collaborations, like Casio’s G Shock watches and Saucony sneakers. The brand resonated with fans—one would even get the logo tattooed on their face. Push also owns a clothing store named Creme, which is available online and in two locations. There was a lot of expertise and distribution that Push could offer Adidas (in addition to his core fanbase).
Pusha T has still kept his corporate hip-hop deals going with a 2022 diss track he crafted for Arby’s, that was reported to gain millions in ad exposure (and conveniently timed to promote It’s Almost Dry). This wasn’t Push’s first time doing a fast food jingle. Steve Stoute recently reminded people that Push wrote the “I’m Lovin’ It” song for McDonald’s in 2003.
Channeling his craft through corporations helped Push compete with artists with more mainstream appeal. During Lil’ Wayne’s incredible run in the late 2000s, and Drake’s own ascension in the 2010s, Push has never backed down from beefing with either of them, who had much larger fanbases. He subliminally sparred back and forth with them, baiting a confident and previously undefeated Drake into starting a battle that Push would end with “The Story of Adidon,” a diss track that needs no explanation.
Even in his rivalries, Push’s Scorsese analogy remains true. As Dan recently tweeted, “Push’s beef with Drake is like Scorsese hating on Marvel movies. They both went after the most commercially successful people in their field.” Push was simply unafraid to go to war on behalf of his friend Kanye West. In a world where everybody wants to be king, Push also knows the value of being a knight in certain situations to defend the kingdom.
Rather than flooding the streaming services with 25-track albums, Push’s projects are always focused on improving quality. This elevation happens almost literally in the art world; Push and Victor look for high art contexts to place Push’s work. For It’s Almost Dry (2022), Pusha leaked a song during Paris Fashion Week and commissioned artist Sterling Ruby to do the cover.
While Push and Steven Victor haven’t led G.O.O.D. Music for years (many of its key artists including Kid Cudi, Big Sean, and Desiigner have since departed, but they remain closely connected with Ye). Push has also launched his own record label, Heir Wave Music Group, to provide a promotional circuit and community to emerging recording artists (mostly, but not entirely, from his hometown of Virginia), as well as to encourage fans in Virginia to support artists from the area (many artists, including Push, had to leave Virginia to seek opportunities in L.A. or New York).
As Push was keen to point out during his press run for Daytona (2018), he moves with the luxury of time. At this point in his career, he doesn’t actually need further critical or commercial success or validation; with his master tracks back in his full ownership and Victor managing negotiations with Def Jam (and potentially signing an imprint deal), the future looks bright for Pusha T.
Push’s story is notable as not just a fable in longevity, but also in consistency: if you can elevate your work creatively, and stick with your fans, you won’t need to worry about celebrity culture or constantly being one hit away from stardom.
Herbert Lui is an editorial director and the author of Creative Doing. His work has appeared in publications like Fast Company, Hypebeast, and Quartz, and he later joined Lifehacker as a staff writer. His company Wonder Shuttle has advised organizations such as the City of Toronto, Shopify, and Skillshare on their writing and publications. He writes the Yeezy Way and recommends three great books every month Best of Books newsletter.