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Pusha T’s seen a lot.

Rapping professionally since 1997, he came up as one half of Clipse and one fourth of the Re-Up Gang, and he’s recently earned the title as president of juggernaut hip-hop label G.O.O.D Music. He is timeless, and this is in part because rap is fun for him. He’s the game’s most passionate chess player, and as rap contours itself to continuous changes in culture and technology, Pusha T thrives by staying one step ahead.

We’re on our way to Pusha T’s hotel in Midtown Manhattan where, having just wrapped up Crack’s cover shoot in Brooklyn, he needs to prepare for one of the most talked-about events in recent rap history. In the back of the luxury SUV, Pusha T seems contemplative, staring out of his window as we cross the Williamsburg Bridge overlooking the East River and Manhattan. In a few hours, livestreamed to millions of viewers in theaters and online, and in front of 18,000 people at Madison Square Garden, Pusha T will stand beside Kanye West as he reveals Yeezy Season 3 and premieres his latest opus, The Life Of Pablo.

“We were in the gym and he was just thinking out loud like ‘man, I just feel like Pablo,’” Pusha T tells me, doing his best impression of Kanye’s excitement. West founded G.O.O.D Music in 2004, and with Pusha T signing to the label in 2010, the pair have become close friends and regular collaborators. “Me and Kanye see things differently a lot,” he tells me. “We’ve always had that dynamic. With that kind of relationship there’s always something to pull out of the space where we see things differently. We call it ‘cracking the code.’”

Born Terrence Thornton, Pusha T has been a fixture in the collective hip-hop consciousness for as long as some of his fans have been alive. In the early 90s, he and his brother Gene ‘Malice’ Thornton – who changed his artist name to No Malice after embracing Christianity around 2011 – joined forces with production powerhouse Pharrell Williams, then working with The Neptunes, to form Clipse. After signing their first record deal in 1997 with Elektra records to release their debut Exclusive Audio Footage, Clipse signed to Pharrell’s Star Trak imprint. In 2002, they released the LP Lord Willin’, featuring their breakout hit Grindin’ – a bonafide classic built with little more than a sparse drum beat. Clipse’s brand of ebullient raps about the drug trade gave quick rise to a lyrically driven movement in hip-hop dubbed “coke rap”. Its main tenant: create the cleverest way to rap about your hustle. “It was more competitive earlier on,” Pusha T remembers as we zip through Chinatown. “The Clipse era was a competitive rap era for me and a competitive production era for The Neptunes.”

Following the success of Lord Willin’, Clipse fell into a music industry vortex caused by one corporation, Clipse’s label Arista Records, merging with another corporation, pop music powerhouse Jive records. The relationship almost immediately proved sour, with Jive investing much more heavily in its pop stars at the time than in its “urban artists”. This didn’t even come close to stopping Clipse, the group released mixtapes alongside Philly rappers Sandman and Ab-Liva as the Re-Up Gang. Eventually, Clipse would form Re-Up Records, the label that the duo released their seminal album Hell Hath No Fury on in 2006.

Pusha T’s eyes are symmetrical and almond-shaped. I notice that when he concentrates, his squint flashes glimmers of light in between the sparse dreads covering his face. He appears to enjoy talking about hip-hop in general, as if replaying the ride he’s been on for the past several years with every answer. “I think with all of this, label drama, to my brother not being a part of the group, to being a solo artist,” he says, calmly, “it has played out in the best way possible today.”

Back in November, Pusha T formally announced his new job role at G.O.O.D Music with his track Untouchable, which fittingly sampled Biggie’s verse from Pudgee’s `Think Big. The song and the promotion felt like an earned victory for Pusha T, whose career in rap music has spanned nearly half of the genre’s existence. Stylistically, he seems to bridge the gap between more traditional rap fans and younger generations who are hungry for new trends. I ask if him if he’s looking to infuse the rap game with more lyrically focused MCs like himself. “The one thing people forget is that even though I have this lineage and rap one way or whatever, I’m still out in the world and seeing what’s going on,” he insists. “I actually love what’s going on in rap, I’m at the same clubs and at the same parties as everyone else.”

Still, as a rapper, Pusha T is as classic a wordsmith as the game has, working with intricate collisions of sounds and syllables, landing multiple punchlines while tackling adventurous beats. He jokingly tells me how he loves working with Timbaland, who made the beat for Untouchable, because he’s “cracked the code” with his characteristically eccentric production. “I’m always looking for a beat that I know nobody else can rap on,” he tells me. “How many remixes of Grindin’ are out there?” But how many of them do you remember? No one else could rap on that beat the same way.

“I feel like my fan base is used to a certain quality,” he continues. “And they’re loud – if you’re not into Pusha T somebody will argue you to the ground.” Although his finger remains on the pulse, when it comes to keeping in touch with his fans, Pusha T still prefers the personal touch to social media, which he’s only moderately active on. “For me, personally, I’d rather do an in-store and be able to be in the little mom and pop shop and see firsthand like, ‘Oh this is the neighborhood where they listen to my stuff,’” he says. “I need that tangible connection.”

While brick and mortar music stores are closing around the world, Pusha T did manage to recreate that tangible connection for his Adidas EQT release party where, to a room full of sneaker heads, he introduced his most recent album Darkest Before Dawn, which was modestly billed as a prelude to this year’s King Push. “I feel like Darkest Before Dawn was me rounding up my fans,” he says. “That was me getting off my personal love of how I want to make music and how I feel like my fans want to hear me.” He sounds comfortable in the knowledge that he doesn’t need to pander to the charts or chase labels down for deals – he’s been in the belly of that beast before and managed to land right back on his feet.

Economically, the rap game has fundamentally changed along with the rest of the entire music industry. The Life of Pablo has debuted exclusively via Jay Z’s much-debated Tidal platform, and it feels like more rappers are seeking endorsement deals to ensure they shift units for high- stake album releases. So did Pusha T ever envision rappers signing deals with Apple, as Drake and Future have recently done? “I remember thinking when I first got in the game that rap music hasn’t really made it until Jay Z is headlining a tour bigger than like, The Eagles,” he says, grinning. “Now, I gotta figure out some new goals because we went well beyond what I could have imagined.” Now, as the hip-hop industry transforms with the help of tech industry giants, Pusha T’s challenge is to remain in control. “Corporations now know that when they have a rap artist in the room it’s an opportunity,” he tells me. “The weirdest part is they might not understand you or the music, but they know it’s something.”

"Even though I have this lineage, I'm still out and seeing what's going on. I love what's going on in rap now"

King Push – the rapper’s third retail album – is expected to be released this summer. The platform has never been bigger, and 2016 has every chance of being Pusha T’s biggest year as a solo artist so far. And yet, he appears to be totally unfazed. “I feel no pressure whatsoever with my music,” he claims with a playful shrug. “I don’t think that my hip-hop goes out of style. And that’s what I Iove.”

Having turned 38 last year, it’s fair to say Pusha T carries veteran status on his shoulders. I ask him if he’d ever consider retirement, but he seems uninterested – the more important question is about what the future holds. “I feel like I’m doing what all of my greats didn’t do,” he declares. “Everybody who I thought was the illest ever, all of them were three, maybe five years in the game. That’s because they looked down on new shit. That’s not what we’re supposed to do. And that’s not what I’m ever going to do.”

Words: Jeff Ihaza
Photography: Christelle de Castro
Styling: Marcus Paul
Styling Assistant: Haylee Ahumada
Grooming: Alicia Marie Campbell

King Push will release this summer via Virgin EMI/G.O.O.D Music
Pusha T headlines Electric Brixton in London on 27 April