When Pusha T finally took the stage at U Street Music Hall on what was by then early Monday morning, he found himself trying to embrace a new role — center of attention.
Alongside his brother Malice, and with a major assist from production crew the Neptunes, the Virginia Beach rapper rose to prominence over the past decade as one half of the Clipse. That duo's equally glitzy and gritty tales of drug life served as a blueprint a couple of the '00s most memorable albums, but constant record label battles and an overcompromising attempt for mainstream success with 2009's "Til the Casket Drops" has left the group's future uncertain. With Clipse on hiatus, Pusha T has been taken under the wing of Kanye West, becoming a part of Kanye's GOOD Music stable and earning some high-profile features on last year's instant-classic, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy."
Pusha's set began at 12:40 a.m. with one of those "Twisted Fantasy" cameos, a boastful verse from "So Appalled" that contained a few lines that neatly encapsulate his lyrical outlook ("an arrogant drug dealer the legend I've become," "them kilos came we gave you Bobby Brown jaw"). His verse from "Runaway" drew an enthusiastic reaction from the remaining audience members that had stood indifferently through a seemingly endless parade of opening acts, but Pusha'a stinging sentiments work so much better when juxtaposed next to West's remorseful and melodic laments. As a single floating verse it was technically superior but completely lacking in context.
Most of the remaining material was culled from "Fear of God," Pusha's uneven solo mixtape debut, which generated predictably uneven results. ("If you don't like it, I'll do better next time," he somewhat bizarrely said about the album.) The 34-year-old has a feisty snarl, focused rhymes and a tenacity that helps him make up for a lack of versatility or natural starpower. He didn't pack the stage with an overflowing posse and only occasionally traded verses with a single sideman, doing his best to step into the spotlight.
"I Still Wanna" was a very Clipse-like street anthem delivered with convincing authority ("See my face on the news and it ain't Tivo/I still wanna sell kilos") yet missed Rick Ross's growl from the recorded version. "Open Your Eyes" featured a distracting sample of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," a reminder of how the Neptunes beats were as much the star on the best Clipse tunes as the rappers themselves.
Shortly after telling the crowd members how D.C. was like a second home to him, Pusha T scurried off the stage after just 25 minutes. But given the late hour and mediocre material, nobody seemed to mind.