This past Friday, the newly-appointed president of GOOD Music, Pusha-T, stopped in Philadelphia on tour supporting his King Push: Darkest Before Dawn album. I was looking forward to covering it, as I haven’t seen Pusha live since I opened for him in 2012. As you can tell from my previous coverage of the Virginian spitter, I dig his work quite a bit; now I had to see how his live show has progressed over the years.
I arrived at the Trocadero theater in the Chinatown section of Philadelphia, where I’ve seen many shows since my youth. Unlike the majority of rap shows these days, this one started at 8pm like it was advertised to. While the show had been sold out for days, when the first act came on stage, the 1,000-capacity room was only about half-filled.
I didn’t recognize the thin young lady at first, as her name wasn’t listed on the show flier and, to be honest, her material didn’t grab me. She bounced around over minimal trap beats, crooning about avoiding sobriety and being young; nothing too standout. She even went for the most cliche call and response you can yell at a rap show other than “when I say ‘hip’, y’all say ‘hop'”, asking, “anybody else here like to smoke weed?” Despite that, she had a decent voice, mixing in an acoustic cover of Travis Scott’s “Antidote” which introduced a welcome change of pace to her set.
It wasn’t until she closed her set with another acoustic track, “Bad” (you may know the version with Wale) that I realized she was none other than Tiara Thomas, an accomplished songwriter. I think Ms. Thomas, while talented, should rehearse her stage show a bit more and diversify her content in order to stand out from the pack.
Next up was another female performer, also not listed on the flier: Bia, a rapper I was not familiar with, signed to Pharrell’s i Am Other label. Her stage presence was much more commanding than Thomas’, launching into some rapid-fire spitting over more trap production. The crowd obeyed when she commanded them to shout “talk that shit, Bia!”, answering with “ok, I will”. Bangers like “Whip It” and “Gucci Coming Home” were examples of songs that could bump in a club but still contained technically impressive rapping.
As the crowd finished filling in, the openers actually billed on the tour, young Chicagoan rappers Lil’ Bibby and G Herbo, hit the stage for a joint set. They got a huge pop from the crowd upon their entrance, flanked by two hypemen (whose purpose wasn’t certain, as the two star rappers adlibbed each other’s rhymes just fine without the awkward extra ‘help’). Regardless, the concertgoers were into the two young spitters’ performance, chanting lyrics along with them as they ran though tracks like “Know Somethin’“, “For the Low pt. 2“, and “Gang In This Bitch“, much to the capacity crowd’s delight.
However, the energy in the room gradually died down as Bibby and Herbo’s set ran longer and longer, going on for about 45 minutes total, which is too long for an opening act, regardless of their stature. After ending with Bibby’s “I’m Rollin’” remix featuring Herbo, they exited the stage and left the restless crowd waiting for the headliner, King Push.
After a 15 minute wait that felt like 45, a cloud of smoke billowed out, towering over us all, and the opening chords of Darkest Before Dawn‘s “Intro” filled the room; the Hispanic man’s voice from the beginning of the track boomed over the Trocadero’s sound system. Pusha emerged from the fog, clad in what looked like a Kevlar vest, with only a sparkling gold kilt-type thing around his waist to differentiate from his jet black ensemble. The background of the stage was illuminated by two neon crucifixes with the words “SIN WILL FIND YOU OUT” emblazoned on each of them.
Push commanded the crowd from the rip, not doing too much talking between songs. Like his outfit, he kept it simple, running through almost every song off the new album, from “M.F.T.R.” to “F.I.F.A.” to “M.P.A.”. Unfortunately, Philly’s own Beanie Sigel did not make an appearance to perform his beautifully gritty verse on “Keep Dealing“, but the set was still off to a great start. The veteran MC also had the wherewithal to appease his older fans with tracks from his 2013 debut solo LP My Name Is My Name, such as the unorthodox instant classic “Numbers On The Boards“, as well as “Pain” and “Nosetalgia“, which still sounded great live even without their respective featured artists, Future and Kendrick Lamar.
Push also rocked two of the finest feature verses of his career, both from his good friend Kanye West’s 2010 magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, “So Appalled” and “Runaway“, which the crowd rapped with him word for word (myself included). But what got the hugest reaction was “Grindin’“, the barebones single that broke him and his brother No Malice out as the duo Clipse in 2002.
Between the show I did with Pusha in 2012 and now, he’s released two albums and a mixtape, so the amount of solo material he had to choose from increased exponentially. He ran the gamut from mixtape cuts like “Blocka” and “Millions” to more songs off his newest LP such as “Retribution” (which had bass that sounded amazing live over the system), and singles “Crutches, Crosses, Caskets” and “Untouchable“.
Pusha then made an obviously fake exit, exclaiming thanks to the crowd and rushing off stage. Nobody fell for it, chanting “King Push!” until he inevitably returned to rock one of the most important songs he’s ever written, Darkest Before Dawn‘s closer, “Sunshine“, featuring Philadelphian Jill Scott on the hook (who did not make an appearance either, sadly). After proclaiming “we’re not done”, Push broke out into a medley of feature verses from a trio of massive posse cuts, “Don’t Like“, “Mercy” and “Move That Dope“. The King then made his regal exit, for real this time, keeping his dialogue short and to the point as usual, exclaiming “I love y’all!” to his fans.
Anyone who knows me knows how highly I regard Pusha as a writer and performer, so I’m admittedly biased here, but that was one of the best sets I’ve seen, hands down. His cool, calm, collected poise on stage and his excellent song selection and set order elevated him even further above the competitive pack of ‘major league’ rappers out today. The clarity of his delivery rivaled that of his vocals on the studio recordings, and the amount of material he covered in roughly an hour was impressive and satisfactory, even to die-hard fans, which the building was chock-full of.
Pusha-T will always be respected as a top-tier lyricist with a consistent catalog, whether solo or with his brother. He may never have the crossover pop appeal of a Drake or a J. Cole, but I don’t think “El Presidente”, as he now goes by, is worried about that. As long as he’s still packing 1,000-plus capacity venues with his core fans, the King’s reign will continue.
all photos by Dominick Draper