Danny Brown - Old

What you’re seeing is a man finally confident enough to step out from behind the curtain.

Additional Info

8.3

ALBUM: Old

ARTIST: Danny Brown

2013

Hip-Hop/Rap

Before settling on Old, Danny Brown floated an interesting title for the XXX (2011) follow up: ODB. He’d later claim that it would have officially been an acronym for ‘Ol’ Danny Brown’, and some of the recurring themes on Old support that. Still, as Dennis Reynolds would say, the implication was clear. Invoking the name of the most famous eccentric in rap history is an audacious move, but it’s one that befits Brown. He’s a consistently shocking, hilarious, and genre-defying rapper, but one that seems to be doing what he wants to do, not what’s likely to generate the best click-through rate. Upon closer inspection, however, Brown and the late Wu-Tang legend are quite different. Saying that someone isn’t exactly like Ol’ Dirty Bastard is so obvious it might be insulting, but considering the differences in their origin stories just makes the long and bemusing tale of Danny Brown that much more bizarre.

Where the original ODB really did have no father to his style, the persona and skill set that made XXX such a critical and popular darling is the culmination of years upon years of Brown studying and perfecting his craft. Malcolm Gladwell would be wise to use the Detroit native as a case study. The most distinctive quality of Brown’s music—the nasally staccato that’s grating before it becomes addictive—wasn’t even a part of his arsenal until 2010’s The Hybrid. Before then, those willing to dig through blog archives will note that he was considered for G-Unit before his style was deemed too left field for 50’s hit factory. But Brown’s been planning for this moment far longer than he’s been on anyone’s radar. Last year he told Complex that he started selling drugs as a teen partially because it was sure to be great fodder for songs. In a genre that’s compulsively, even cannibalistically obsessed with staying young, Brown predicated his breakthrough record on a decidedly ugly age: thirty. This is a guy who constantly recalls telling his elementary school teachers he wanted to be a rapper—what you’re seeing is a man finally confident enough to step out from behind the curtain.

Those years shrouded in obscurity begat an acute self-awareness that, when paired with increasingly stunning technical ability, have given Brown a confidence in his creative decisions virtually unparalleled in music today. Old is a dizzying affair, a 19-song album that clocks in barely over 56 minutes. Brown bounces back and forth between sincere, touching laments (“Lonely”) and unabashed drug celebrations (“Dip”). The latter is especially important. Brown has always embraced things that are usually taboo in hip-hop, especially the circles in which he’s moved (at least until now). The only rappers given a pass on things like hard drug use or being jumped (“Wonderbread”) or traumatized (“Torture”) as a child are the ones who frame those things as formative experiences. Instead, Brown avoids connecting dots of any kind when it comes to his psyche, preferring vivid imagery that he trusts the listener will use to reach certain conclusions. And for someone who frequently—and quite astutely—comments on social issues in the press, Old never tackles the world outside of what he can see and touch. A recent Rolling Stone interview (“I don’t watch the news because it’s not my life. [What I rap about] is my life”) echoes Jerry Seinfeld’s famous 1991 appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show, where he argued that while war, economic collapse, and crime “are going on, [they’re] not happening right here. It’s all going on out there”. Such an inwardly focused record needs two things to succeed: interesting roads into its subject matter and quality execution. Old has both in spades.

Brown cleverly teased the idea for months on end that the album would have two distinct halves. The former would be the heavier, more clear-headed songs, said Brown, while the latter half would be the raucous party anthems. In reality, the record is much more free flowing and complex than that. But what the false, promised dichotomy did was tailor expectations to the point where listeners actively think about the sequencing of the album’s tracks. The conventional school of thought is that weightier, personal songs should fill out a record’s back end while the up-tempo tracks catch the listener’s attention at the front. By shunning that predictability, Old unsettles listeners from the beginning. It would have been easy to string together the songs where the hotel rooms look “like a hair metal concert” (“Red 2 Go”), leaving the consequences of that partying to be sorted out in the morning. Instead, “Red 2 Go” comes immediately after “Clean Up”, where Brown shamefully satisfies his vices while ducking calls from his daughter. When the aftermath is seen first, the party reads a whole lot darker. So when on the hook from “Red 2 Go” Brown asks “is anybody nervous?”, it’s not a taunt—it’s the voice of a concerned, reluctant center of attention begging someone to stop him.

And even if the album weren’t so compellingly structured, it would be a joy to listen to for Brown’s obvious abilities as a rapper. He has a tremendous respect for his craft and for the genre writ large, so even the most lighthearted songs are approached carefully and honestly, never flippantly. The vast arrays of conceits are all carried out like an aggressive search for the most resonant writing possible. His voice is dexterous as it is memorable, and he’s in full command of it. An impressive lineup of guest rappers show up, and save for a particularly sharp Freddie Gibbs (“The Return”), Brown raps circles around all of them. When, in that same interview, Rolling Stone asked Brown if it were fair to call Old a rap album given its “experimental sound” (one that’s basically just a couple of dubstep-influenced songs), he scoffed, as we all should: “what else could it be?”

"Is anybody nervous?"

1. Side A (Old)
Presumably a nod to the “old Danny Brown”, “Side A” paints a clear picture of a desolate environment—one that can’t be easily ignored, no matter how much Molly beckons from the shadows. While the calls to “bring the AKs back” are probably intended to be grating, the hook might overplay its hand. It’s too inside-baseball for first time listeners, of whom there are sure to be legions for this album. It’s an aggressive, tonally appropriate intro that falls short of what it should be because it mortgages a good deal of Brown’s natural charisma for a more conventional feel.7.0
2. The Return
If “Side A” is a prologue, “The Return” is a stunning opening scene. Loosening the reigns on his voice to follow the gruff, monotone Gibbs, Brown brags that he “rose out them ashes, drinking Fiji water”. As ill advised as a nod to Aquemini would seem (and as bad as J. Cole made it look earlier this year), both rappers show up in A+ form (Gibbs promises to “ship this blow to Minnesota”). 10.0
3. 25 Bucks
A collaboration with Edmonton EDM duo Purity Ring, “25 Bucks” is one of the most quietly innovative songs in a catalog filled with bizarre twists on rap tropes. The titular money is being exchanged for goods and services in ghettos that are clearly familiar to Brown, but the sound and biographies of the Purity Ring members keeps the environment at arms length. The resultant creepiness makes Brown’s upbringing as bleak as it probably was, devoid of all the charm and kitsch that twenty-some years of popular rap has given urban American poverty. 9.0
4. Wonderbread
While a sonic left turn from “25 Bucks”, “Wonderbread” follows exactly the same lines. It takes the worst of Detroit’s crimes and makes them the backdrop for a kid’s trip to the store to buy the bread his mother asked for. “Next, a n**** from over there shootin’/dawg, I ain’t blink, I kept it a-movin’” is a whole lot less impressive and a whole lot sadder than it would be in most other contexts. 9.0
5. Gremlins
Now, Brown takes a step back and speaks as the adult he is now, looking at the kids who will “turn porches into smokescreens”. He even dispenses fatherly scolding, most interestingly the warning to a young one with some misinformation about his idols: “listenin’ to 2 Chainz, ain’t thinkin’ ‘bout college/I wonder if he knew that 2 Chainz went to college”. Impressively, the song doesn’t come off as a warning to these kids or as a grumpy old man’s complaints. Instead (perhaps because of the last two tracks), “Gremlins” is just another piece of the setting Brown needs to build. 8.5
6. Dope Fiend Rental
The “trail of blood on that baggie” from cutting himself on a razor might as well be the thesis of Brown’s work to date, and “went from holding crack in my ass crack/to racks on racks on ASCAP” is one of the more creative come-up boasts in recent memory. Paul White does a commendable job behind the boards on the album’s front half, but SKYWLKR’s presence is definitely welcome here. Schoolboy Q complements Brown well, especially when he caps a verse about meaningless sex with worry for his daughter. 9.5
7. Torture
“Torture” is the most unflinchingly straight-faced Brown gets on the album. There’s no room for his usual humor or wit—where would it fit between the heartbreaking stories of abused crack heads and fiends burning their faces? It’s well executed for what it is, but it seems like it cuts corners unnecessarily, especially when Brown is so adept at finding unusual ways to set the scene. 7.0
8. Lonely
In a sharp departure from “Torture”, the album is infused with a heavy dose of optimism. It’s still played uncharacteristically straight, but this time it’s endearing and disarming. “I used to sell trees and I used to rock Timbs” is a beautiful admission from a young man searching for his identity - the drug dealing was tried on and taken off just like his shoes. 9.0
9. Clean Up
As excellent as “Clean Up” is on its own, it benefits greatly from the masterful setup it receives. The four songs that lead up to it embody entirely different emotions and viewpoints, and all of them are short. The schizophrenia becomes paranoia as Brown steps back to examine his life from the corner of a hotel room where he’s holed up during a bender. The hint that the partying—by now the hallmark of his career—might be his downfall will haunt the rest of the album. 9.0
10. Red 2 Go
This is the rarest of things: a song that has different—opposite—implications inside and outside of its context on an album, but doesn’t cheat or tip its hand either way. Ostensibly a song tailor made for pre-gaming, when “Red 2 Go” is taken as the next natural step after “Clean Up”, it suggests an incredibly dark, self-destructive cycle. Either way, it knocks. 10.0
11. Side B (Dope Song)
Brown again finds the sweet spot, winking at the camera without letting the song become entirely self-referential. Acknowledging that a faction of his fanbase wants him to continue down the road established by parts of XXX, he agrees to make “one last” dope song. It’s bright, quick, and dripping in charisma. 9.0
12. Dubstep
The title’s incredibly clever pun goes a long way, and the verses are pretty good—especially Danny’s. But the instrumental can’t decide if it wants to innovate or be the central casting version of a dubstep track, and the song suffers for it. It feels infinitely more boilerplate than it really is. Scrufizzer proves that he’s not ready for the big leagues. 6.5
13. Dip
Sure to be a staple at parties, concerts, and in snowboarding edits on Vimeo, “Dip” is a total commitment to an aesthetic. Not only is Brown unafraid to be the token rapper who’s enthusiastic about taking MDMA, but he uses this song to question the credentials of other rappers who have stuck their toe into his territory. A well-placed nod to his spiritual predecessor Mac Dre comes right before the devil-may-care “I’m grindin’ on your bitch while I’m grindin’ on my teeth”. 9.0
14. Smokin’ and Drinkin’
A song with such an uninspired premise only works of the artist is really firing on all cylinders. Danny Brown is. Even the simplest of boasts are structured so that one clause leads naturally into the next: “let’s not talk ‘bout the shirt/she can’t even pronounce that”. It should be filler, and in most senses it is—it’s just very good filler. 7.5
15. Break It (Go)
“Break It” doesn’t even pretend to be fully realized. This is the closest the album comes to an unnecessary song—the sentiments at play either exist in other, more nuanced songs or could have been inserted rather easily. Aside from “I’m activist on Actavis”, there’s really nothing to see here. 6.5
16. Handstand
And here it is: the first rap song for strip clubs that won’t admit it’s a rap song. “Handstand” is the purest marriage of rap and EDM to exist on Old, and it’s hypnotic. Brown’s charisma is undeniable, especially at such a frantic pace. 7.5
17. Way Up Here
“Way Up Here” is a fascinating study in the power dynamics of clubs even when it doesn’t mean to be. It sports the album’s single best line: “can’t hear what none of y’all talking ‘bout/I’m on top of a mountain and you’re just at a club in Brooklyn”. Aside from a regrettable fowl reference, Ab-Soul more or less matches Brown’s intensity. Rustie’s beat is an album highlight. 9.0
18. Kush Coma
“Kush Coma” is dragged down by its hook, plain and simple. Brown’s bridge doesn’t help much either, but the hook in concert with the too-psychotic instrumental makes a song that should play like the listener has the spins instead feels like a clip from a cartoon. A$AP Rocky is a natural fit for the song and (very) briefly falls into an exciting flow for the beat, but is mostly left behind by a Brown who, despite not being as sharp as he is on the previous or succeeding songs, comes out head and shoulders above his more famous peer. 6.5
19. Float On
Backed by unlikely star Charli XCX, “Float On” is the undisputed gem of Old’s latter half. “And to beat your enemy, you gotta think like them” is a disheartening look into Brown’s upbringing. Evidently, that taxed Brown to a point where semi-dependence on substances is really the only viable form of emotional escape. The atmosphere is perfect; it’s a song that’s melancholy and optimistic without trying too hard to be either. 10.0
Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is a the lead writer at 2dopeboyz and a frequent contributor to Passion of the Weiss.



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