On “Nosetalgia,” Pusha T — best known for his work with his brother in Clipse — and Kendrick Lamar — 10 years younger than Pusha and currently the sun around which the rap industry orbits — meet on a track that’s been designed to the last detail. There are blood-orange guitars, drums that sound like hollowed-out tree trunks and a low-end opaque as oil-fire smoke. Clave knocks authoritatively and KRS-One’s admonition from “The Bridge Is Over” — “you better change what comes out your speakers” — flickers until his moan steps out of the shadows and arches from one side of the track to the other.
The song’s title, the fuzz that warms the sound and the presence of Boogie Down Productions serve to remind everyone that, for all the recent hullabaloo over the verse on which Lamar called out his competition by name (including Pusha), proclamations and power struggles are in hip-hop’s marrow.
What these two musicians are after is nothing less than the belt. And what they use to get it is an analogy that juxtaposes the coke-dealing game with their own battles for artistic supremacy.
Pusha’s voice is multitracked when the moment calls for it, but each layer is bone-dry. His stories spark smells and full-color memories; his consonants bruise. Though his tone portends fearful things, he narrates a degree removed. His melody packs light. He calls himself the black Ferris Bueller. In contrast, Kendrick’s carbonated rasp is resentful. He bends his narrative toward his mother, his aunt, his father, then pulls away. He’s tilting into the past, leaning like Michael into the future, contorting his voice the whole time. The stakes for both rappers have made them even more sibilant than they normally are.
None of this is obscured by the single-shot black and white video they’ve made for the song. In it, Push stomps down the middle of a Compton street, looking like it’s his town, even though Kendrick’s claimed it. He trains his eyes on the camera, reveling in his own words and unable to suppress a smile or three. He takes a right, Kendrick walks up behind him and Push makes a face like he’s slapping us with his glove.
Kendrick talks with his hands but won’t hold eye contact for longer than a bar. He’s wound up, shoulders high, walking too fast for Push’s loose-limbed pace. And when they’re done reciting the verses they visibly believe in they turn around, high-five and revert to two regular guys moving down a regular street on a regular night