As this year winds down we’ve recapped its highlights to bring you the best of 2018 in fashion, sneakers, music, movies and more.

Forty-eight hours before the release of his third studio album, Pusha-T took to Twitter to explain the drastic name change, one that fully redacts the overblown bluster of previous effort King Push - Darkest Before the Dawn: The Prelude. “I changed the album title from King Push to DAYTONA because I felt it didn’t represent the overall message of this body of work,” he wrote. "DAYTONA represents the luxury of time. That luxury only comes when u have a skill set that your confident in.”

Even in the most tense of times – a span that found him awaiting his producer-svengali Kanye West to finish mastering the record and shell out a cool $85,000 to the estate of Whitney Houston for its album art literal hours before its release – Pusha characteristically cuts right to the heart of the matter. For the album he christened DAYTONA is not just the best album of the year, but a record that only exists because of the decades the rapper known as Terrence LeVarr Thornton spent elevating his craft.

Many are quick to characterize Pusha’s dexterous flow as being akin to a surgeon; his bars as razor-sharp and incisive as the slice of a scalpel, or his analysis of subjects as clean and precise as a dissection. There is nothing amiss in this analogy, but a comparison that strikes more to the heart of DAYTONA would be that of a carpenter, a master craftsman who – after sharpening and refining his art day in and day out – has been given the chance to make his most exquisite, ornate piece of work yet.

The workman-like approach to rapping has been a staple of his practice since the heyday of Clipse, perfectly mirroring the dedication to which he enshrines the art of drug dealing. With so many years on his grind, what would be a boast from any of his peers becomes a statement of simple fact. “The only rapper sold more dope than me was Eazy-E,” he spits on “Infrared,” again, a concise observation rather than a flex. In both subject matter and execution, he now creates from a place of pure excellence, his hard-earned years of immersion in the industry giving rise to a complete mastery of the medium.

The greatest indication of Pusha playing to this strength is in DAYTONA’s remarkably restrained runtime. Contrary to nearly every other cultural narrative of a rapper reaching a period of excessive bloat in middle age (*cough* JAY-Z *cough*), Pusha has doubled down in the opposite direction, creating a project whose leanness adds clarity and underscores its message. Suffice to say, this decision proved immediately influential; the crop of albums with 20-minute runtimes seemed to manifest tenfold after the summer’s G.O.O.D. Music rollout had finished, while the punishing scope of records like Drake’s feature-length Scorpion underscored the advantages of focus and brevity.

Speaking of the 6 God, no discussion of the effects of DAYTONA can take place without at least a passing mention to its incendiary aftermath. In what is, rightfully, being assessed as the most important hip-hop beef since JAY-Z and Nas, Drake unthinkingly took the bait proffered in the record’s closing track “Infrared,” which led to “The Story of Adidon,” Pusha’s diss track that set the rap game on fire. Far more than mere schadenfreude at seeing the once-untouchable Drake irrevocably smeared (though that was definitely a vibe), Pusha singlehandedly resurrected one of the genre’s most venerated attributes and demonstrated with ease the lethality with which it can still be employed.

Of course, none of these attributes would mean much were it not supported by exceptional music, and DAYTONA is, even by a conservative estimate, impeccable from start to finish. The triumphant strains of opener “If You Know You Know” perfectly evoke the feeling of a conqueror strolling through Valhalla, while the hisses and pops that punctuate “Hard Piano” are only half as venomous as Pusha’s bars themselves. Even for a wizard of wordplay, he manages to outdo himself on cuts like “The Games We Play” and the haunting “Santeria,” reinvigorating the notion of rap as coded language for a generation whose current contributions to the genre involve foregoing words entirely for mumbles.

As for the great, MAGA-hat wearing elephant in the room - DAYTONA is every bit an accomplishment for Kanye as it is Pusha. Even before the Wyoming records had finished being unveiled, many – correctly – surmised that Ye had unleashed his very best work right out of the gate. In fact, for those left wondering if the now-mystical YANDHI is the promised Kanye record they’ve been waiting for, it’s worth pointing out that DAYTONA has been that album all along. In a year in which West did his damnedest to make a nuisance of himself every time he opened his mouth, his most profound work of art was the one that he contributed to silently.

Or, near silently at least. When Kanye does make a vocal appearance on DAYTONA’s “What Would Meek Do?”, his guest verse stands out as the most surprisingly self-aware moment he had in all of 2018. If you can get past the eye roll-inducing bray of “Am I too complex for Complex Con?”, you’ll find some of the only discourse from Kanye that comes close to an explanation for his behavior. It is here that he reckons with his much-alluded to opioid addiction and its ramifications on his well-being, and it is here that he contextualizes his repurposing of Trump’s signature merch with something close to resembling a logical answer – one that subtly points toward the limits of privilege even for someone of West’s stature.

There are many albums that can justifiably be deemed as the most indicative of 2018, or albums whose creators best signify the sign of these very troubled times. And yet there was no question we could name anything but DAYTONA and Pusha-T as the year’s best. They reflected something more intangible about us this year; perhaps we gravitated to the narrative of a hardworking underdog finally unveiling his meisterwerk, or perhaps in this era of chaos we were comforted by hearing a master do what he’s trained his whole life to do with aplomb. Or perhaps, as “Hard Piano” loftily posits in its chorus, DAYTONA is a place “where the kings go,” and basking in its glory proved pleasure enough.

Pusha-T's 'DAYTONA' topped our ranking of the Best Albums of 2018. See our full list here.

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