ARTIST: Danny Brown
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?"