The Year’s Best Hip-Hop Album (by a male) Defied All The Odds… And Won

If anyone had told you in 2002 that one half of the now-defunct duo Clipse would not only record an album sixteen years later, but that the album would be heavily regarded as one of the best albums of 2018, you would probably have responded, “yeah, and I guess the next thing you’ll tell me is that the president of these United States will be Donald Trump, or that his predecessor would be a black man.”

All three were true.  And while two of those statements – about the POTUSes – are undeniable facts, the other is an opinion – a largely held one – backed by a number of factors that give the claim some serious legitimacy. 

Pusha T’s album Daytona is arguably the best hip-hop album of 2018.

Pusha T’s 2018 album Daytona is that album.  Digest that for a minute: Terence “Pusha T” Thornton, of all rappers, recording an album near the end of the millennium’s second decade that harkened back to those ancient, pre-mumble rap days of its first, when dinosaurs like Clipse still roamed the airwaves.  Except, Daytona will be remembered for its excellence far more than anything Clipse, which included Pusha and his brother Gene “No Malice” Thornton, ever put on tape. (Although, upon further listen, “Grindin’” still sounds dope 16 years later!)

In just seven tracks and 21 minutes of playtime, Pusha’s Daytona reminded everyone what hip-hop’s best virtues are: razor-sharp, confidently delivered lyrics set to some hard-ass beats – curated by Kanye West, no less – with a clever use of samples (key word “clever,” not the straight-ripped variety courtesy of the 1980s/‘90s).

Pusha T

Daytona’s best asset, however, was its star.  This was easily Pusha’s career-best performance.  As one critic put it, “each track is an elocution lesson, (Pusha’s) bars enunciated with the almost pedantic menace of a bad cop explaining what he plans to do to you.”  

In other words, you won’t have to check any lyric sites to understand any of his menacing flows.  He laid them out clearly enough for all to comprehend (and react to in one case).

Indeed all of Daytona’s seven tracks were single-worthy, although only two were pushed as such: the lead-off track “If You Know You Know,” and the album’s penultimate one – “What Would Meek Do?,” featuring Kanye West on its second verse. 

It’s that feature that begins the discussion on what made Daytona the unlikeliest of best-album candidates, one which overcame a number of factors to even be in the discussion as 2018 comes to a rapid close.

First, the album’s two featured rappers:  Rick Ross and Kanye.  

Both of the two over-40 emcees are arguably past their primes. (Ironically, before Daytona, the same could have been said about Pusha). Either guest rapper could have been considered a huge liability, yet neither Ross nor West detracted much from their two stellar tracks (“Hard Piano” in Ross’ case). Ross even exacerbated the aging issue by making dated references (e.g., who still remembered Nancy Grace before he raised her from the dead?).  Pusha, however, kept “Hard Piano” current by name-dropping more relevant headline grabbers like Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein (of the #MeToo era), unwittingly assuring that he would come across as the more current star of the two, and keeping the song sounding fresh in the process.

Kanye West (left) produced Daytona and was featured on one of its tracks.

Then there was the whole Kanye factor.  

The album was the first of a five-album weekly rollout by Kanye and the artists on his G.O.O.D. Music label, where Pusha serves as president.  Daytona ultimately proved to be the best of the five, and not only because of the rapper’s killer rhymes.  West’s beats really worked, too, proving that he’s still as prolific a producer as he is a rapper, maybe even more so at this point.  Since much of a producer’s work occurs behind the scenes, a well-documented personality flaw the size of Kanye’s is not as much to overcome as an album’s frontman’s would be.  Still, West’s name was all over this much-hyped project from the start, and it wasn’t a guarantee that the public and critics would be as receptive to Daytona as they ultimately were.  

Really? Just 21 minutes?

In an era where more is often perceived as better, Pusha and Kanye packed Daytona’s punch into a 21-minute supernova that proved shorter can definitely be sweeter.  Although the ensuing four albums in Kanye’s G.O.O.D. music quintet were also – by plan – of the shorter, seven (or eight)-song variety, Pusha’s album was the one that started it all, and Daytona let the industry know that it’s not always about epic, feature-length albums (er, Drake) and higher streaming counts.

Speaking of Drake, The Story Of Adidon…

The album is probably best known for the track that wasn’t on it, but one that would not have existed were it not for the album’s last track, “Infrared,” in which Pusha fired critical shots at rap’s previously most untouchable star, Drake, by reigniting the ghostwriter allegations.  It provoked a Drake response (“Duppy Freestyle”), which spawned Pusha’s brutal diss track, “The Story of Adidon,” where the 41-year-old exposed Drake’s paternity of an illegitimate son and altered the Canadian rapper’s universe in the process.  “Infrared” thus singlehandedly gave rap beefs credibility (not to mention lethality) in 2018 – a year otherwise known for some of the lamest, most contrived beefs to date (Eminem vs. Machine Gun Kelly anyone?).

Pusha T shifted Drake’s whole universe with his diss track, “The Story Of Adidon,” which was not on Daytona.

Not Number One…

In a year when a record-breaking 18 albums by hip-hop artists hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, the year’s best was arguably one that didn’t even reach the top two.  Daytona debuted and peaked at No. 3 in June with only 77,000 album-equivalent units consumed in its first week.  While sales and streaming numbers (and the resultant chart positions) are hardly a reliable indicator of an album’s greatness, they at least help put the album in the conversation, particularly at the end of the year during retrospectives like this.  Daytona obviously didn’t need those credentials to land in 2018’s best-of discussions. 

And it’s still winning… 

When Grammy nominations were announced two weeks ago, Daytona received a nod for Best Rap Album.  While it’s not an entry in the more prestigious general field, it is the first album nomination for Pusha, who previously received three separate bids for individual rap song performances.  If you don’t think Grammy recognition is a big deal to hip-hop stars, think again.  Pusha makes no fewer than four references to the awards in Daytona, and he’s already spoken on his current nomination in the media.

Referring to his nomination in the Rap category, Pusha expressed his non-surprise that Drake’s album wasn’t included.  After all, half of Scorpion wasn’t really rap.  And – beefs and disses aside – maybe that was Pusha’s point.

But there’s no denying that Daytona was rap…all rap.  And by many accounts, it was one of the best, if not the best hip-hop album of 2018.