The cover art for Pusha T’s album Daytona is a picture of Whitney Houston’s bathroom. It was taken in 2006, but it appears older and more worn than it is, perhaps because of the border of what seems to be faux water damage. The décor is distinctly ’90s, an aggressive attempt to look soft. The counters are cluttered, strewn with all the ingredients required to sustain an addiction—spoons caked with powder, pipes, papers, cigarette butts.
That Houston is not in the photo is irrelevant. There is plenty we know about the occupant by instinct. The person who commands this space is not broke. They are not a new user, nor a casual one. At this point, Houston was more than a decade into a battle against crack and cocaine addiction, an addiction that she often denied. “I feel like the cover represents an organized chaos,” Pusha said. “Looking at that cover, I’m sure whoever frequents that bathroom or area knew whatever they wanted to find and knew where it was.”
Tina Brown, Bobby Brown’s sister and Whitney’s then-sister-in-law, took the photos and sold them to the National Enquirer. She also divulged deeply intimate details about Houston’s addiction, family, and relationships. “Whitney won’t stay off the drugs. It’s every single day. It’s so ugly,” Brown said. The tabloids reported on it with a mix of smug derision and hollow lament. They expected no more from a drug addict. “It’s hard to believe that [this] drugged, dazed woman … was once one of the most beautiful and popular singers in the world,” wrote one reporter. “But today that woman, Whitney Houston, is just another crackhead.”
Pusha is a protégé of Kanye West, a disciple of the church of provocation. West produced Daytona and it was West who insisted on paying the $85,000 licensing fee to use the picture for the cover. “This what people need to see to go along with this music,” Pusha said West told him.
And the photo is provocative. It’s visceral, even. Photos tend to rely on the living to turn stomachs, but this picture manages to pull it off insensate. There are no pretenses here. It’s uncomfortable, like walking past a couple screaming on the sidewalk. Just by existing, you barge in uninvited. By no fault of your own, you invade.
Over the past 30 years, hip-hop has garnered a reputation as lawless, angry, and violent. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, politicians, community leaders, and journalists inveighed against the music, blowing racist dog whistles and invoking well-worn theories of black defect, while steadily laying the blame for any issue plaguing poor black communities at hip-hop’s feet. “Gangster rap reveals the pathology of its creators,” The New York Times wrote in 1990. Other publications went further. Billboard magazine published a piece by Michelle Shocked, a white folk singer, in which she argued that hip-hop was the minstrelsy of our time, and managed to blame rap music for white racism: “The chicken-thieving, razor-toting ‘coon’ of the 1890s is the drug-dealing, Uzi-toting ‘nigga’ of today … [The mostly white] audience will eventually feel justified in all manner of acts of racism.” Listening to certain mainstream rap was like entering “a nightmare world of brute criminality, unrelenting bloodshed, and African American self-loathing,” wrote David Mills of The Washington Post in 1991.
Drug dealing has always been a major character in the persistent myth of the scourge of black criminality in rap music. Given the coverage, one could be forgiven for believing that rappers were the first artists to ever reference drugs, violence, or casual sex. But as far back as the 1930s, when Cab Calloway sung “Reefer Man,” drugs and popular music have been entangled. From jazz and heroin, to marijuana and reggae, to whiskeys in country music, and the great range of substances in rock and roll, drugs and alcohol have had major influences on both art and artist. If anything, hip-hop has simply followed in this tradition.
What was legitimately new about hip-hop was something more subtle: While most pop music concerns itself with drug consumption, hip-hop spans the whole market. It’s been 30 years since N.W.A’s “Dopeman,” a song that begins with a skit of an addict showing up to Eazy-E’s door trying to sell his chain. The rapper turns him away. “To be a dope man, boy, you must qualify,” Ice Cube instructed. “Don’t get high off your own supply / From a key to a g it’s all about money.” It’s a mantra Biggie would repeat 10 years later in “Ten Crack Commandments.”
Hip-hop’s focus on the supply end of the drug market—the drug dealer—is understandable, given the comparably meager conditions of much of black life in America, and the government’s perpetuation of those conditions. The successful drug dealer manages to secure vast wealth while defying a criminal-justice system that has long brutalized black people. For N.W.A., formed in the tumult of 1980s crack-era Los Angeles, and besieged by all the material values of capitalist America, the horror of drug addiction was beside the point. The point was money in communities that had almost no access to capital. The point was the rejection of the legal system that had long rejected them. By the time Biggie came along, very little had changed. “Juicy” might well be the kind of song now played at white people’s weddings, but when Biggie talked about the people that “called the police on me when I was just trying to make some money to feed my daughter,” he was speaking in earnest. The dealing was seen as a way of surviving in a world that had bet they would not.
And yet, hip-hop long regarded the drug addict as a figure of scorn and comedy. This has changed somewhat as the genre has evolved. Today rappers such Future and Young Thug speak frankly about the ways they use drugs to manage inner turmoil. But for a long time the user was incidental, a weakness to exploit. “On the corner, betting Grants with the Celo champs,” Nas rapped. “Laughing at baseheads trying to sell some broken amps.” They are fodder for derision, the users. Addicts, if not casual users, are regarded with a pervasive contempt. “Just another crackhead.”
Hip-hop, for all its creative force and ingenuity, has long subscribed to an image of addiction that corresponds with the culture it professed to reject—the image projected by fear-mongering politicians, the one that undergirds the criminal-justice system that launched the War on Drugs. The drug dealer in hip-hop is a resourceful antihero, part Robin Hood, part CEO. But the addict in hip-hop is like the addict everywhere else. Hopeless. Deserving of shame. Off to the side. Something subhuman—weaker, stranger, more destructive than the rest of us.
Pusha is a product of this tradition. He has, in his 41 years, worked largely in two professions—the rap industry and cocaine dealing. He describes first dealing drugs as a junior-high kid. When he was 15, Pusha followed his brother into hip-hop; together they forged the rap duo Clipse. Like many of their contemporaries, Clipse’s music was a mix of nostalgia and bravado, and cocaine was a major piece of their repertoire. Whatever money they made from rap was built on the glamorization of their former vocation. But in 2010, they parted ways—Pusha’s older brother, Malice, recommitted to his Christian faith and sought more anonymity. Pusha, on the other hand, sought more of the same. He signed to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music that same year, where he’s released four albums, including Daytona.
Coke and Pusha’s music are inseverable. He is part of a larger cohort of rappers who came to the music industry in the wake of drug dealing, but Pusha has centered his past much more than his peers. This is what he’s known for now, perhaps less because of the dealing he actually did and more because he references it persistently.
Hyperbole finds a home in all music, and rap is no exception. Drug dealing is especially ripe for exaggeration. It is near impossible, then, to present even the basic reliable details of the years Pusha spent dealing. And yet it is not hyperbole to say that coke harnesses some sort of magnetism over Pusha’s music. He is almost effortlessly clever in his self-conception—“L. Ron Hubbard of the cupboard,” the “last cocaine superhero.” It is the consistent thrum throughout his whole body of work, including Daytona.
Pusha is older now, with money that he didn’t have before. Titles, too—in 2015 he was named president of G.O.O.D Music. He seems to have retired from the drug game. “Young enough to still sell dope, but old enough that I knows better,” he said at 36, on Future’s “Move That Dope.” And yet his gravitation to the past is persistent, line after line heavy with bombast and nostalgia. One gets the sense that dealing, not rapping, is the dream job. Other rappers managed to escape the game. He begrudgingly aged out of it. “Who don’t wanna sell dope forever?” he asks incredulously.
Like all of us, Pusha is a victim of his own cognitive dissonance. In interviews, he seems genuinely perplexed by the reputation he’s earned over the years. He repeatedly downplays the extent to which coke dealing is central to his music.
“You get a lot of heat from people who say you only rap about cocaine—,” one radio host asked him in 2015.
Pusha cut him off, agitated. “I don’t care what they say,” he said. “Listen, people can’t even talk to me about that anymore. That bothers me. Cuz I feel like if you say that, then you’re only listening at a surface level.”
“It takes a more introspective viewpoint to sit here and talk about the science of it,” he said in another interview. “I’m talking about how it’s dog eat dog, the level of loyalty you have with these people, because it’s a team, and when it breaks down, what happens to your life. The competitive nature of these guys in the street, that vie for the biggest prize or the hottest girl. It’s all about ego.”
There’s something to this, surely. When Pusha is rapping about cocaine he’s referencing it in a musical tradition of black people creating industries in places that had none. He’s talking about much more: the economics, his subversion of the law, capitalism, his youth, the thrill. And yet it narrows to the same thing each time. He’s laser focused—obsessed might be an overstatement, but there’s no denying his fixation. Every metaphor is this metaphor.
The delineation between user and dealer is inexact and often illusory. The myth of a distinct supply chain—where a person either cultivates or deals or possesses or uses, but never more than one—doesn’t tend to map onto reality. But it’s a frame that has persisted through the drug war: suppliers as kingpins, dealers as evil, and users as weak. It is this fiction that allows us to criminalize the whole chain of illicit drugs, from creation to consumption. We view these different tiers in the market as distinct because it makes it easier to ascribe wrongdoing. I understand why this is attractive to lawmakers and moralizers—we can punish the sinners. We can wipe our hands clean of them. And ultimately this brings us back to an analysis of pathology—one that allows us to blame the individual rather than grapple with the fundamental causes of addiction and the transactional market of illegal substances.
In a time when society seems to have a newfound pity for drug users, it’s easy to understand our era as a post–drug war one. This is a mistake. Sympathy shifts on a dime. In many parts of the country, the opioid crisis has motivated a return to failed tactics, some even worse than before. “Using laws devised to go after drug dealers, [prosecutors] are charging friends, partners and siblings,” The New York Times reported in May. “Many are fellow users, themselves struggling with addiction.” Many of these people purchased drugs and decided to share with a friend. But when that friend overdosed, the user was suddenly no longer a pitiable drug addict, but an evil murderer. In Louisiana, a heroin addict named Jarret McCasland injected his girlfriend, Flavia Cardenas, also a heroin addict, with drugs. The injection killed her. In 2015, McCasland was tried for second-degree murder and convicted; he was eventually sentenced to life without parole.
The increasing trend of prosecuting users for murder is a disturbing reminder that criminal law is no place for a drug crisis. The return to a failed drug war, one that manipulates addiction into pure weakness and dealing into murder, is bound to fail. It’s also a reminder that there is not as much of a difference between scorn and pity as one would hope. The perception of drug addiction is still predicated on weakness, sin, and shame—all of which deserve punishment or justify exploitation. The portrayal of addicts as pathological shapes everything from our drug policy to our coke rap.
The difference between users and dealers is, again, often fictional. But in Pusha’s case, like many of his predecessors and peers, the separation is real. He boasts about—and, much less rarely, grapples with—dealing, not using. And the failure to fully comprehend the life of a drug addict is what allows him to exploit Whitney Houston for his own benefit.
There are glimpses, brief moments of more complicated self-reflection from Pusha—guilt, regret, and a fear of what karma might have in store. “I started out as a baby-faced monster / No wonder there’s diaper rash on my conscience,” he says on “Nosetalgia.” But the moments are short-lived, and any accountability is internal. There is much more grandstanding than self-reflection. There is no person at the end of the dealing, no character at the end of the rhyme. Transaction necessitates multiple people, but Pusha is onstage alone. And because of that, he spends precious little time focused on the wrongs. As he says on “Drug Dealers Anonymous,” “The money count is the only moment of silence / ‘Cause hush money balances all this drugs and violence.”
There’s a braver approach, one that both rejects didactic anti-drug rhetoric that conflates use with addiction and addicts with hopelessness, and does not avoid the very real damage literal “pushers” facilitate, if not inflict. Countless examples are sprinkled throughout the genre—Tupac’s “Dear Mama” (“Even though you was a crack fiend, Mama / You always was a black queen, Mama”) or Jay-Z’s “You Must Love Me” (“All you did was motivate me, don’t let ‘em hold you back / What I do, I turned around and I sold you crack”). In fact, it’s what Kendrick Lamar manages to do on the second verse of “Nosetalgia.” Lamar excavates a litany of emotions about his father’s drug dealing and addiction, the possibility of prison, his promise to support his family, his aunt stealing from him to feed her habit. (“My daddy turned a quarter piece to a four and a half / Took a L, started selling soap fiends bubble bath / Broke his nails misusing his pinky to treat his nose.”) It’s not an ethical reprimand, but an accounting of the wins and losses, an assessment of the various ways hard drugs are lucrative and dangerous.
But by focusing on his market prowess almost exclusively, Pusha avoids the weight of his past and present exploitative behavior. He has built a career from others’ drug addiction—first by selling drugs, then through two decades of constant rhymes about selling drugs. One could argue the former was more defensible.
Ultimately, he’s created a persona that benefits from the same desperation that killed Houston in the end. One sees hints of that reflection in the album cover—not the money, not the exchange, not the person, but the day-to-day banality, the accoutrements of a life centered around using, and the various people that enable such a life.
Dying of addiction is a particular cruelty—it kills you and then haunts the collective memory. If you die by heart attack, or cancer, or in your sleep, it’s a tragic postscript to your life story. If you die of addiction, it is your life story. It becomes the whole plotline. Whitney Houston was the greatest pop vocalist of her time, a luminescent woman, joyful, a black woman built of the church. But as an addict she became a sideshow—mocked in her long struggle, and ogled in her death. How she lived has been overawed by how she died, so much so that the scene that led to her death can now be packaged, like her music, as a commodity.
It is impossible to map the struggle of someone you don’t know publicly or personally, but by all accounts, Houston spent years of her life in combat, on the frontlines of her own personal drug war. One of the world’s greatest singers was treated not with empathy, but with derision. She was ridiculed in the press, betrayed by her family, exploited by her loved ones. Media used the term pathology to describe her life, too. The former editor of Us Weekly described Being Bobby Brown, the reality-television show featuring Whitney; her husband, Brown; and her child, Bobbi Kristina, as “a show where you probably saw more pathology than you needed to.” She died in a bathtub. You know what they say: that you can’t ever beat this kind of addiction. You either spend years outrunning it, or it kills you instead.
Ten years ago, my friend Lisa overdosed on heroin and died. She’s not the first person I knew to die from an overdose, nor the last, nor the most surprising. But her death weighs particularly heavy on me, especially now. Lisa was theatrical, strong willed, sharp, but never self-serious. She was a storyteller, with a limitless capacity for invention. On New Year’s Eve 2000, when I was 13, my parents insisted that I spend the evening before the new millennium at church. I was devastated. But the next day Lisa threw me a surprise New Year’s party, inviting all our friends over to her house in the middle of the afternoon. There were party hats, I remember. We all stood in her living room, holding hands, counting down to fake midnight. I remember being stupefied by how extravagantly kind this was.
And yet, when I think about Lisa, I have to fight for these memories of life because they are all obscured by the manner of her death. It’s not out of judgment or disappointment, not because her death says anything about who she was, or who she was to me. It is because the tragedy of a life ended so abruptly can be all consuming. This may be understandable. But it’s less than she deserves. It warps her humanity to remember her merely by the disease of addiction.
This is about more than my own memory of a friend felled by addiction, or hip-hop’s exploitation of it. We are in a moment when the ethical expectations of art and artists—especially when it comes to the mistreatment of women—have exploded. Art is supposed to make us uncomfortable, expose the cracks in the foundation, and strip bare what we’ve deified. But it also exposes the artist. Bill Cosby kidding about Spanish Fly is not so funny anymore. Woody Allen’s Manhattan simply doesn’t play the same. The rendering of people as objects to be deployed however an artist chooses is at last coming into question.
For Pusha T, the addict is nearly always an object, a means more than a human—“A nigga got rich from what you snort through a straw,” he recounts. And the portrait of Houston’s addiction plays the same role, transforming a scene of personal strife into a package to be distributed out on the streets. In all the times I replay her death in my head, I have never wondered where Lisa got the drugs. I am not interested in laying blame. Similarly, it is easy to imagine circumstances in which drug dealing is not a choice, but an imperative; not a question of morality, but one of survival. But there is no imperative in making the dead collateral damage in a quest for profit. And there is something particularly brazen about profiting from the addictions that killed a person, and then pillaging their reputation for more.
Honest art is not always honorable art—which is to say, there is no honor in laying bare the failings of others when you are unwilling to interrogate your own. Honesty that asks no sacrifice lacks truth; honesty at someone else’s expense lacks virtue. Profit and provocation are easy. Honorable art, hard art, is in the reckoning.