One was to deliver a worthy follow-up to the “event” that was his third studio album Daytona — a 2018 project elevated by a tight seven-song tracklist, a certain beef he’s since moved on from, and the promise of it being his very own Purple Tape (Only Built 4 Cuban Linx). Pusha’s other objective with It’s Almost Dry was to finish recording sessions promptly, so he could be a worthy father. “I’m really working to get back home to him,” he says of his toddler Nigel Brixx Thornton.
Nigel — now 2½ years old — is at the age where he’s starting to figure out what it is that his father Pusha does for a living. He watched him in awe at DC’s Something in the Water festival this past summer (with headphones on, of course), and he’s even caught a glimpse of his dad on TV screens, laughing like the Joker while reciting rhymes about drug-dealing memories, his current opulent lifestyle, and the now-lifelong journey of fatherhood. “He gets it,” Pusha explains. “He gets that there’s an artist element and a TV element to his dad.”
On It’s Almost Dry, nominated for best rap album at the 65th Annual Grammy Awards this February, the self-proclaimed “Martin Scorsese of street rap” completed both of those objectives. Easy. Not just for himself, but for the kid who calls him “dada.”
“I didn’t even know I could get more passionate about hip hop. And in having a son, and incorporating him, and the level of focus that he’s brought to my music, and the level of just structure and determination that he’s brought to my creative process — It’s like it’s laser-focused,” Pusha, real name Terrence Thornton, tells PEOPLE while reflecting on his year and eyeing Grammy night. “The focus has to be there because I know the music can’t lack. My son can’t have a wack rapper dad.”
Truthfully, Nigel has nothing to worry about when it comes to his father eventually pulling up to parent-teacher conferences — because, now at 45, Pusha T could never be a wack rapper. His April record is a testament to that; a 12-song reminder of his prowess, equal parts produced by longtime collaborators Pharrell Williams and Kanye West (whose recent hate speech Pusha has disavowed).
Making the album last year alongside the two producers and a handful of worthy collaborators was somewhere between a quest to uncover the “purest level of rap” and a “conversation” riddled in witty lyrical references, Pusha says. “The conversations alone would last for an hour or two before we even got into making music,” he remembers. “It was rap-nerd school. Hip-hop junkie-ism. It sounds funny but it’s really what it was.”
The references are everywhere: Nods to Tom Brady, Puff Daddy, William Shakespeare, Joaquin Phoenix’s 2019 portrayal of the Joker (which Pusha watched a few times over during the project’s creation), LeBron James, Missy Elliott, The Godfather Part II… really, anyone or anything considered great.
And It’s Almost Dry‘s “all-star cast” was also sprinkled in there with a level of greatness, with assistance from JAY-Z, Kid Cudi, and Pusha’s older brother Malice, whom he broke out with as part of Clipse, and who has since reunited with him for a handful of performances in 2022 — from ComplexCon to the BET Awards.
“Let’s add Hov to the mix. You know what I’m saying? Let’s bring my brother, who no one’s heard, and just show that that’s still there,” Pusha says of the album’s line-up. “I mean, I just feel like it was an all-star cast… You have people who love soul samples and me rhyming over that. People hadn’t really heard me play the composition-rap-song game like that with P. Not since [2002 album] Lord Willin’ era, [2006’s] Hell Hath No Fury, those types of things. And I feel like people didn’t know that they needed both.”
As for who heard the Grammy-nominated LP first, JAY-Z was among those names, along with Puffy — who Pusha also views as an all-timer with an “album-making” background. “He’s crafted classic albums for my favorite rapper ever, the Notorious B.I.G. So it’s like I just have to get his ears on it. I need his ears,” Pusha tells PEOPLE. “And Hov is the same way. Lyrically, there isn’t a better rapper. So, of course, I always make sure that they hear it and the feedback is, like it was for It’s Almost Dry, phenomenal.”
Pusha aligns himself with greatness, seeks the approval of the greats, and sees himself as a great, too. His warranted confidence isn’t changing, just as he isn’t changing what it is he raps about after two decades in the game — his lived experience dealing drugs, and how that experience has shaped one of today’s (and yesterday’s) best storytellers in hip-hop. On album closer “I Pray for You,” Pusha puts this longevity into perspective, sharing “You can live forever when the s— you write is timeless.”
“Lyric-driven hip-hop never dies,” he says. “People like smart, articulate, hip-hop, regardless of what the subject matter is, regardless of the actual art of the metaphor, the similes, the parallels being drawn. People love it. They love it. Regardless of its street, regardless of its conscious, it’s just a person having a favorite style of movie. Whether they’re into gangster films, whether they’re into romance films, horror, whatever. [Fans] really let me know that what it is that I do is super relevant and super admired, and I appreciate it so much.”
Pusha T has seen this in person, too. Knocking out several legs of his It’s Almost Dry Tour and taking on a handful of festival sets throughout 2022, the Virginia great commands a “spectrum” of fans on tour, he says — with concert-goers ranging from the ages of “15 to 50.” “All ages, all genders, colors,” Pusha tells PEOPLE proudly. “I could tell the former dope boys who were sitting in the stands with their girlfriends, to the 15-year-old kid who is singing word for word.”
“The spectrum of people, the backgrounds, is all over the place at a Pusha T show,” he continues. “And I love it.”
On Nov. 15, Pusha got the news that It’s Almost Dry — which became his inaugural No. 1 on the Billboard 200 upon its first week of availability — secured his second-in-a-row best rap album nod at the Grammys. It’s an achievement he seemingly predicted by selling T-shirts on his own website reading “RAP ALBUM OF THE YEAR” in bold text. But Pusha isn’t being “prophetic” with his merchandising after over 20 years in the game, he’s just more “sure of himself” these days.
“I know exactly what it is that I’m making, and I know exactly the point where I hit the vein and I hit the target. So it’s not that I’m being prophetic or just having the natural rapper braggadocio attitude. It’s not that,” he says. “It’s just that I know this sub-genre of hip-hop that I do so well and I know when I’ve nailed it. And I just felt like since the album was finished, I was like, ‘Yeah, we nailed it. We definitely nailed it.'”
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The first person Pusha called when he found out about his Grammy nomination, he tells PEOPLE, was his wife Virginia Williams, who then asked about the “other” categories. “She felt slighted,” he admits. “And I was like, ‘Yeah… Baby, don’t worry about it. We got the big one, don’t worry.'”
With the big one now under his belt, and competition in fellow nominees Kendrick Lamar, Future, Jack Harlow, and DJ Khaled, it’s not entirely clear what Pusha will do if he walks on the Crypto.com Arena stage in two months to accept the trophy. Will he bring Nigel to cease any “wack rapper dad” talk? Will he Joker-laugh his way up there to salute Joaquin? Will he thank his brother and reflect on a career built off “rolling with the punches?”
Regardless of what happens on Grammy night, Pusha knows one thing has already been decided — trophy or not. He made the rap album of the year.
“Hearing it back, and just bringing it back to the Grammy nomination, when I listened back to it, I’m like, ‘Man, I actually did make the best rap album of the year,” Pusha says. “Like pure-rap album, most eventful rap album of the year. When I say rap — and I’m talking about the actual art — I actually, lyrically, murdered it.”