While functioning as the in-house rappers for peak-era Neptunes, the fraternal Virginia duo Clipse released two spectacular albums, each one musically expansive and lyrically narrow, rife with self-imposed limitations. Foremost among these was their fanatical focus on shoptalk, with nearly every song focused on their fictional drug-dealing empire, resulting in an impressive amount of brilliant wordplay about narcotics. This wasn’t a built-to-last formula, however, and the group’s momentum faded, despite their technical bona fides. Now more than 10 years after their debut, Clipse’s Pusha T is still landing some of the finest beats in the business, and still putting limitations on himself. In a changing hip-hop landscape, where the emphasis on street hardness has grown increasingly old-fashioned, his solo debut finds him spinning the same tired tales of tough-guy criminality.
The difference between innate lyrical talent and a stimulating framework in which to present them is evident across My Name Is My Name, its title drawn from fictional drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield, who, like Pusha himself, is a robustly gifted figure who suffers from a lack of long-term vision. Equipped with beats supposedly discarded from Yeezus, Pusha benefits from some top-flight material from Kanye West and Hudson Mohawke. “King Push” starts things off on a high note, its lurching marching-band momentum twisted further by distorted vocal samples, while “Numbers on the Boards” goes even further, atonal percussion destabilizing an already menacing landscape. Both tracks find Pusha in top form, droll and limber in his rhymes, yet still without much of a focus beyond boilerplate self-aggrandizement.
This lack of personal perspective becomes more evident as the album progresses. There’s a huge quality gap between the first two tracks and album closer “S.N.I.T.C.H.,” on which frequent collaborator Pharrell produces and guests on an uncharacteristically stupid tale of jailhouse betrayal. Unlike Pharrell, whose managerial flair and behind-the-boards finesse allows him to flit impishly from one subgenre to another, Pusha is an old-school bulldog rapper, a mean-faced bruiser whose technical chops are his only real calling card. Without the signature cocaine patois to fall back on, he’s mostly relegated to spit-shining his own kingpin rep. Snarling and earthy (his signature exclamation is a guttural “yuck” sound), he’s a reminder of how marginalized such low-charisma figures are becoming as hip-hop grows more pop-oriented than ever. Nowhere is this clearer than on the emptily bombastic “No Regrets,” which features fellow tough guy Jeezy on a sad, saggy duet.
Like any rapper, Pusha is still heavily dependent on the talent surrounding him, and these connections keep things on an even keel, with mostly strong production work presented throughout. The-Dream offers some much-needed eccentricity to “40 Acres,” his bizarre slavery references and off-kilter production livening up an otherwise familiar retribution song. And Kendrick Lamar lends his deepening growl to “Nosetalgia,” an otherwise tedious bit of dealing/rapping parallelism that benefits greatly from the sharp narrative he forms in his few verses. Yet despite its pedigree, the album puts too much overall emphasis on guest spots and not enough on establishing a distinctive identity for the rapper. Full of retrograde lyrical conceits, seemingly at odds with its futuristic backdrops, My Name Is My Name is a reminder that Pusha T hasn’t changed, and his stubborn reliance on maintaining his brand is probably not the wisest strategy in today’s shifting hip-hop climate.