More than anyone else, Danny Brown exemplifies the possibilities of the internet era. He’s from the city of Dilla but prefers European EDM. He almost signed to G-Unit but loves Aesop Rock. He’s truly a hybrid, able to jump onto any type of track and battle any beat into submission. He’s positioned himself as one of the best rappers of the new decade. Breaking through on 2010’s The Hybrid, an album laden with Detroit tough talk and great rapping, he didn’t gain internet fame until he cut his hair, signed to hipster label Fools Gold, and released his free album XXX in 2011. XXX is high-concept hip hop, a drug fueled journey through Danny’s hopes and fears, addictions and pleasures. It’s one of the essential millennial hip hop albums, reflecting modern drug use in a way that no other rapper has. It also provided him with an image break he needed. Freed from stylistic expectations, Danny spent the last year bouncing around from feature to feature, leaving loosies on everything from California art rap to Chicago drill to, most notably, EDM. As molly and rave culture has infiltrated the genre, Danny Brown has become an icon; the high pitched, gap toothed, cunnilingus giving raver. Old, his new album, shows us the man, not the image, on one of the best projects of the year.
One of the most striking aspects of Old is it’s organization. Danny Brown is great at creating albums as experiences. XXX literally played out as a drug trip, with the first half illustrating the high and the second half the come down. Old switches the script. Trading in an overall arc for two distinct sides as if it was a cassette tape, Danny loads the first half with more serious downbeat songs and fills the second half with techno bangers. Old is about growing old, about how Danny’s past has affected his present. The first half is laser-precise memories, stories from his childhood told in haunting detail. The second is his life as it is now, flashing lights and crazy nights, trying to escape from his past. It’s his version of the American Self Made Rapper, coming up from nothing to dazzling riches, but it subverts the traditional tale and satirizes the Sparknotes Horatio Alger that’s being sold to the masses. It’s a hefty, smart, versatile, and fun piece of work.
Let’s start with side A. The opening track “Side A (Old)” immediately sets the picture. It’s winter in Detroit. Jackets are worn inside and the stove is kept on all day. Ramen is on the menu but the junkies outside don’t have an appetite. Danny’s selling crack to keep his landlord off his back. Kids outside will kill for some Cartier glasses. With a world this bleak, you can hear the eyeroll when Danny says in the chorus “they want that old Danny Brown back to bag up and sell a whole pound, might have to go and get my braids back. Matter fact, bring them AK’s back.” The rest of the side is a Grimm fairy tale, 8-Mile directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Images are frozen in time. Danny’s mom selling haircuts on the stoop. Little kids running around gangbanging like gremlins. “Wonderbread” is dark Dr. Suess, with little Danny Brown getting beat up on the way to the store. The most descriptive is “Torture.” Oh No creates an ominous chant fit for a gothic cathedral as Danny lists off his traumatizing experiences, like seeing a junkie burning off his lip off and a crackwhore who had peanut butter licked off her crotch. But as great as Danny’s storytelling is, the soundscape deserves just as much credit. Producer Paul White did a lot of the songs and he exhibits absurd chemistry with Danny here. Not only are the beats great, they take Danny to unexplored places before. He has a way with vocal samples, starting off “Lonely” and “Clean Up” with such insular atmosphere that Danny has to rap in his regular voice. It’s startling for a rapper who’s built such a perception for himself. But this side crushes all sorts of preconceptions that fans and artists might have for Danny Brown.
Side B (Dope Song) opens in a flourish, marking the halfway point before techno synths come marching in and Danny raps “31 years old so I done been through all that dizzert, came up off the porch straight serving off the cizzurb, long time ago, don’t do that shit no more, this the last time I’mma tell you. Wanna hear it, here it goes!” Then the beat drops, Danny overlays his vocals with a high pitched kid voice, and proclaims that this is his last dope song. It’s a shot of wasabi, a eye watering palette cleanser straight to the ears. The second side is unlike anything you’ve ever heard in rap before. Danny invites EMD producers Rustie and Darq E. Freaker for some absolutely absurd beats. There’s no relief here, every song is operating in that dangerous area between euphoria and ODing. There’s no place for a rapper to crawl in and hide. Even before the drops, the baseline is bubbling and the synths are gurgling, blurring any kind of percussion. Danny said that the focus of Old was the production, a “who else could rap over this” type of deal. And he’s right because he kills every track, delivering banger after banger. Ab-Soul and A$AP Rocky, two great rappers who normally demolish features, sound like they’re holding on for dear life when they appear. But Danny hugs the whirlwind and somehow manages to make sense out of the beats.
Old is incredible. There’s still so much left to say about this record. Freddie Gibbs joins for a interpolation of Outkast’s “Return Of The G” and Schoolboy Q lights his verse on fire on “Dope Fiend Rental.” As well as bringing aboard EDM producers, Danny got indie acts Purity Ring and Charli XCX to drop great choruses. Ab-Soul says he’s smoking on super saiyan. The best feature on the record might be from an unexpected British rapper Scrufizzer, who basically made everyone else look foolish with his quadruple time accent. But Danny Brown is the star. His voice is crazy, able to shift from manic pixie sprite to ghetto bruiser to so sad and light that it puts Drake to shame. Every song has at least 3 lines that are quote worthy. But the only way to really experience this is to listen yourself. I’m going out to buy a copy right now.