I think at this point in time it’s safe to say that anyone with eyes and ears can see and hear that over the years hip-hop has been becoming more and more like a full on car crash soap opera. And with the presence of the internet you just can’t seem to look away or escape it. The sagas of gossip, violent posturing and hilariously juvenile threats are now better known than the music of some artists and as important in promoting hip-hop records as MTV, mixtapes or magazines like The Source or XXL. Just look at some of it’s biggest names; banal actors peddling the same old, tired Scarface storyline and building careers on exaggeration, dubious jewelry and expensive sponsorship. As with most beefs, the messes most rappers get themselves into were convoluted, based on rumors, marketing strategies, bullshittery, hype, misunderstandings, and of course testosterone. Seems the contest of outdoing other MCs with lyrical skills degenerates quickly into loudmouth egotistical boys involving vicious personal put downs by some of the biggest egos in the music business.
And god forbid you ever take a red raw glowing palm print across the ass type of spanking on record because the hip-hop culture as a whole can be both notoriously unforgiving and fickle so it is unlikely that a rapper can ever draw any kind of respect from the collective hip-hop mindset after the weak disses are heard. Dating back to the primitive days of hip-hop, beef wasn’t just something you ate, it was something you expected and had to be ready to retaliate. What began with friendly DJ rivalries on neighborhood block parties in the 1970s soon manifested into the untimely deaths of icons 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G. Today hip-hop beefs, and to a greater extent the vituperative diss track, are warning signs that there is always a possibility that lyrical rivalries will develop into offstage feuds that become violent. The most recent noteworthy diss track is, all things considered, undeniably one of the oddest, most introspective in its history, not only for its overall quality or who it has its target set on, but for its witty ambiguity, harsh purview, and genesis of the situation at hand. I’m talking about none other than Pusha T’s “Exodus: 23:1”.
“Exodus: 23:1” dropped in late May of this year and within seconds of the track hitting the internet it sent shock waves across the hip-hop world. But all the commotion that “Exodus 23:1” caused wasn’t exclusively for Pusha T’s monster lyrics or Rico Beats dark, ominous production. Much of, if not all, the attention was zeroed in on what was perceived by many to be Pusha taking shots at Young Money rappers Drake and Lil Wayne. And though it’s often commonplace in hip-hop for rappers to withhold the name of whom they’re referring to in an effort to generate controversy to stay hot, in Pusha’s case his track “Exodus 23:1” couldn’t be farther from the ordinary. Pusha isn’t really looking for ways to stay relevant in the game; after all he is one half of the always formidable, hip-hop darlings Clipse, appeared on Kanye West’s hit single “Runaway” (where he also made an appearance premiering the song with him at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards) and eventually landed a record contract with West’s GOOD Music label, further expanding his name/brand.
No, Pusha T’s “Exodus 23:1” was a track he penned out of sheer frustration, a love for competition, to prove he’s better (and realer) than his rival(s), and a trenchant he never lets up, dating back to his days with brother No Malice (formerly Malice, before finding religion) in Clipse. Apologies on getting all meta on you for a second but let us not forget that together the duo did pen the influential early decade street corner anthem “Grindin’” (“From the days I wasn’t able, there was always ‘caine”) back in 2002 and in 2006 with Hell Hath No Fury, the most boisterous, flamboyant, creative hip-hop record of the 2000s. Not writing a track like “Exodus 23:1” just wouldn’t be honest artistic expression for Pusha. It had to be done! So when do we get into the track itself? We’re not quite there yet, first we need a little history lesson to better understand the scope of “Exodus 23:1” so let us flashback a few years to Clipse’s “Mr. Me Too”. What seemed like a fun, harmless song about the nameless/faceless swagger jackers, the person that sits there and examines your style and takes a piece of it is said to have a deeper, subliminal message about Lil Wayne. It is speculated that “Mr. Me Too”, like “Exodus 23:1” is about the New Orleans rapper, who Clipse believe stole their style (“So you can pay three and buy yourself some Bapestas”) and rap persona (“The streets was yours, you’re dunce cappin’ and kazooin’”).
Around the time “Mr. Me Too” (and Hell Hath No Fury, the single’s parent album) was released in 2006, Lil Wayne was single-handedly dominating the rap world. Capitalizing on a pretty weak playing field and dilapidated market, Lil Wayne released a plethora of free legal download mixtapes and reached the masses through guest appearances on a variety of both hip-hop and pop singles. Lil Wayne was seeing great success and dollar signs while Clipse was away for years due largely in part to what felt like never ending contractual disputes. Finally back and hungry for their share of the wealth, Clipse were overshadowed by artists like Lil Wayne, frustrated “Mr. Me Too” quickly became the duo’s impulse killing. To make the long story short, Lil Wayne responded and the beef with Clipse went back and forth until finally coming to an unresolved standstill. Fast forward to the present with the whole Clipse/Lil Wayne thing cooling off, resting somewhere on the back burner “Exodus 23:1” comes right out of left field, sounding like a direct sequel to 2006’s “Mr. Me Too” but with an unexpected sense of blood-splashed belligerence. Similar to “Mr. Me Too”, the song doesn’t name names but also like it, through all the sharp ambiguity, gives enough hints that it’s, once again, about a Young Money affiliate.
If the unerring rancor of “Mr. Me Too” was an irresistible impulse killing after Clipse’s three year long hiatus; capped off by tantamount frustration with the state of hip-hop and their brazenly self-declared best rapper alive head honcho, leading the culture too far down a rabbit hole then “Exodus 23:1” is a tactical, fully armed, strapped to the teeth arsenal attack with a complete disregard for anyone standing too close to the target. But coming from a lyrical marksman like Pusha T, when “Exodus 23:1” fires a bevy of shots, it makes sure to hit its mark. Paralleling The Notorious B.I.G.’s “What’s Beef?,” Pusha separates the true thugs from those who merely associate and imitate them, and spits what many consider to be subliminal disses aimed at Drake, Lil Wayne and the whole YMCMB in general. And though sneak dissing is frowned upon in hip-hop, Pusha is not afraid of mentioning names but simply challenging the listener and the hip-hop collective to pay close attention; Pusha is not wasting his lyrical ammunition on target practice. This is sport for Pusha and because it’s sport, he makes sure to play the game smart. Unlike the handful of rappers cutting diss tracks, Pusha isn’t composing funny disses in a juvenile attempt at making his rival the butt of the community. Pusha crafts lyrics that, once broken down and digested, sting like a virus, spreading all throughout the rival’s body, and eventually causing the body’s immune system to shutdown, leaving the rival vulnerable for further damage.
Case in point: with producer Rico Beats sampling The Notorious B.I.G.’s “What’s Beef?”, Pusha T subtly denotes the diss theme of the track straight from the beginning. Pusha wastes no time, coming right out of the box both hard and smart from the opening line (“Beef is best served like steak well done”). Many would agree a good steak is cooked medium rare to rare, while a well done steak is generally considered to be poor in taste and quality. Here Pusha implies then that beef should be rare or not easily started. Because when it does happen, it has dire consequences, especially if you’re dealing with someone like Pusha and his crew. Pusha’s introspective wordplay also brings Tyga into the discussion, a YMCMB associate known for his three Well Done mixtapes who mentions beef on his track “Light Dreams”. The second line is just as good as the strong opener, with Pusha using news clippings as a source against his rivals (“Get a gun in your face, bitch nigga”) as Drake and Tyga have been allegedly held up at gunpoint. Pusha also continues his distinction between genuine thugs and those who merely associate with them. The latter talk shit and quiver when they get held up, the former are the ones who are holding the gun.
And though the track does indeed go ‘hard’ for its four minute runtime, a minor quibble can easily be made about the brief, apparently haphazard The-Dream auto-tune sung guest spot. However with Pusha’s solid resume and understanding of how to play the game to his advantage, calling on The-Dream to sing the lines “Them niggas ain’t dying for you” might not seem all that random and has its place in this saga after all. Little known fact is R&B singer-songwriter superstar The-Dream has had conflict with both Lil Wayne (over their shared baby mama, Nivea) and Drake affiliate The Weeknd (over Twitter). This curt six word feature is clearly an opportunity for him to take a few shots at his enemies. Pusha used him to his advantage. The line that possibly gives away this whole cryptic, ambiguous track is in the first verse (“Contract all fucked up / I guess that means you all fucked up / You signed to one nigga that signed to another nigga / That’s signed to three niggas, now that’s bad luck”). In this Pusha calls out Drake for being signed to Lil Wayne’s Young Money imprint, which is under Birdman’s Cash Money, which in turn is under major label Universal Records. But if you think that can apply to just about any musician in today’s day and age, think about this: the same line was originally used by Ludacris in his song “Say It to My Face”, which was a direct, blunt diss to Drake. Pusha isn’t plagiarizing, he’s rubbing salt into the wound.
And perhaps “Exodus 23:1” was a tad too soft for your liking up until this point in the track, but granted it gets frighteningly vicious from here on out. After Pusha T proposes his enemies to find a new get rich quick scheme (“You better off selling this hard now”) seeing as their current careers are going downhill (“You call it living out your dreams / You can’t fly without your wings”) he begins to question Drake and Lil Wayne’s claims of affiliation with the Bloods street gang (“Where the blood and the battle scars?”) while pointing out that his own crew really have had to deal with criminal charges (“We the ones that judge juggling the gavels on”). Throughout his career Pusha (the slang term ‘pusha’ refers to a drug dealer) has stayed true to his yayo slanging visions and is the one that actually sold cocaine, and his manager Anthony Gonzalez was the one that got sentenced for a massive drug conspiracy. “Put me to the body, nigga,” Pusha spits with an almost maniacal intensity to his verse. “First 48 put us to them bodies, nigga”. He’s furious; an unforgivable mean streak powers his lines from here on out, he’s willing to hurt his enemy. All the endlessly documented drama Pusha and brother No Malice have endured, the ascetic rage that courses through “Mr. Me Too” up to “Exodus 23:1”.
Violence, like in Pusha’s hood, now permeates the track tenfold (“Round here we don’t play that / A to the K that, spray that, lay back”) and Pusha is ready and very much able to catch a body. If he can’t get to Drake, Lil Wayne or a YMCMB affiliate, he’ll go after someone else with reckless abandon. With this Pusha takes a shot at eighteen year old Chicago producer Young Chop who wasn’t quite pleased with the changes that Kanye West made to his “I Don’t Like” beat for the remix featuring Pusha. Pusha’s response? “You can keep your beats, nigga / We’d much rather share your bitch, nigga, bitch nigga”. He’s cold-blooded, spitting like he’s about to blackout on the track. Drake has often stated that he wants to take advantage of his fame and get everything he can while he still can do it. But to do so he needs to go through the people that want him done, such as Pusha, instead of just ducking out. Which is ironic, because that is similar to what he told Common but then proceeded to duck out of the beef himself. Drake thought he was slick on Meek Mill joint “Amen” when he said “GOOD ain’t good enough, and your hood ain’t hood enough” (“They got you talking that big shit”). This line wasn’t noticed by everyone, but don’t think that Pusha forgot (“Little do you know we don’t miss shit”). Keeping with the violent side of things, this is also a double entendre, meaning that Pusha won’t miss any shots they take, or miss Drake when he unloads his arsenal at him.
The final two lines in the verse to “Exodus 23:1” can pretty much surmise the entire track with the first line (“Them niggas using you as a pawn / You see they never loaded they guns”) being a frank diss at Lil Wayne who not only has never shot and harmed anyone like he often claims in his music, but when he was arrested on that gun charge in NYC a few years back, the gun that they found had no bullets in it, and the cops never found any ammunition on the bus. The latter hits the hardest (“Now you out here all by yourself / Ask Steve Jobs, wealth don’t buy health”) for its obvious no nonsense approach at getting its point across. Even Steve Jobs’ billions of dollars couldn’t win him his battle with cancer. Similarly, no matter how much Mr. “Twenty-Five Sittin’ on Twenty-Five Mil” is actually sitting on, no amount of money can save his lone self from Pusha or his goons. If you care to look deeper into this line, it could also be a shot at Drake’s friend/producer Noah “40” Shebib. 40 has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis about seven years ago, and won’t exactly be able to keep doing what he’s doing forever. So the money they’re making together won’t buy the health. Sure, it might be cruel but for Pusha nothing is off limits at this point in the game. For him, every line must make sense, there must be a subject-predicate, beginning-end, and “Exodus 23:1” while being a diss track, is certainly no exception to the rule.
It might be too early to rank Pusha T’s “Exodus 23:1” as one of the finest examples of a diss track in hip-hop, as it did only come out this year. But I fail to see why not? There are no fallacies in its composition and its intentions are made clear right from the start. Pusha’s lyrical execution contends that of Nas’ “Ether” and Jay-Z’ “The Takeover”, two tracks that are aimed at the opposition party, adding fuel to the fire of one of hip-hop’s most famed rivalries post-2Pac/The Notorious B.I.G. Unfortunately for Pusha it doesn’t seem likely he’ll ever be involved in a historic feud what with Drake and/or Lil Wayne’s pedigree. Being the wordsmith that Pusha is, his diss track is crafted more like an essay than an actual battle rap with Pusha introducing the argument, analyzing the data, raising counter-arguments, and then concluding. “Exodus 23:1” may not be as blunt or brutal as 2Pac’s “Hit ‘Em Up”, the prototype for today’s diss track. But that same bluntness and brutality actually softened “Hit ‘Em Up”’s blows. Calling out your opponent for their physique, claiming relations with the opponent’s baby mama, parodying their video, and allowing for your posse to get in on the action actually stifled the intensity it attempted to showcase. Pusha is a rap historian and is well aware that if he attacked Lil Wayne’s well known image or Drake’s acting days on Canadian television show Degrassi then he could lose credibility and would overall alter the cohesiveness of the track.
Hip-hop is a culture built on flexing your verbal muscles, machismo, and bravado so backing down or losing a battle could be extremely detrimental to an artist’s career. One slip-up and you could find yourself with a one-way ticket to obscurity. Even though I’d like to think Pusha went so hard on “Exodus 23:1” that it sparked a flame in Lil Wayne to put the skateboard down and pen songs like he once used to. But the only thing “Exodus 23:1” did was have Lil Wayne respond with “Ghoulish”, a track so dull and infantile that it didn’t even warrant a response from Pusha. Pusha, as he often does, used his brain to cut down his competition, not merely relying on violence, threats or childish insults but instead bringing out the cold hard facts, ratios, and mathematics to prove what he was saying was in fact legitimate. If we’re looking at it from a competitive standpoint then Pusha is a true competitor by nature, he’s a rapper’s rapper. But lamentably for Pusha T it doesn’t seem probable he’ll ever find the right competition. Pusha’s “Exodus 23:1” can be likened to that of “Takeover”, “Ether”, and even Ice Cube’s NWA diss track “No Vaseline” for single-handedly decimating the entire YMCMB brand in a single song. Subliminal, cryptic, ambiguous, whatever you want to call it, it’s a meaty track that is reminiscent of the days of unfaltering greatness and the aspiration to get ahead in the game through hard work. Pusha knows that all this recent attention he’s generated is well deserved and it’s been a long time coming but for how long will it last? And while he is here he might as well go after the top dogs to prove he’s a contender, that he belongs. “Exodus 23:1” is personal, historical, referential, real, witty, intelligent, and poetic all in one.