With Old, a colorful personality transcends mere persona

Danny Brown

“They want that old Danny Brown…”

The two-and-a-half minutes of “Side A” that serve as an introduction Danny’s second(ish) full-length are iron-fucking-clad. All ominous tones and a breakbeat that churns like a piston, like “Shook Ones” in overdrive. We’re far from Indio or Manchester, Tennessee. The oven door is open, for heating purposes. Ramen noodles bubble on the stove and dope fiends line the streets. Outside, you can see your breath. This is unmistakably Detroit, well before Danny was even close to being internet famous. His voice is grisled and low, not even close to nasal. By the time we segue into “The Return”–a play on an Outkast classic with a similar intent–we come to understand just how deliberate this table-setting is: “The return of the gangsta, fuck a hipster, squeeze a trigger,” Brown pauses, “Ya got me fucked up, I’m a hood ass nigga”.

For Danny Brown, age is a consistent theme, so the past tends to spill over into the present. Before there was Old, there was XXX–the title a subtle dig at his own age–a sprawling account of the anxieties facing a starving artist, growing older in a young man’s game. Fortunately though, XXX felt like the record he was born to make, stacked with enough brilliant material to serve a lot of different functions: career-making introduction, critical darling character study, and ammunition for two years of heavy exposure on the festival circuit. XXX was a desperate manifesto from a protagonist who was at his most relatable with his back to the wall. Grungy charm, an abundance of pussy-eating jokes, hood tragedies, and drugged-out paranoia–backed by a smattering of forward-thinking production, it was only a matter of time before all that personality found its audience.

As fans, we tend to value hip-hop for its towering, mythical personalities, at least as much as for its musical virtues. And on that front, Danny was a dream come true. He was a fresh voice, literally and figuratively: squawky, hedonistic, fearlessly funny and self-deprecating. Between the voice, the Sideshow Bob hair, and the cavernous gap where his two front teeth used to live, he went above and beyond looking the part. This was a certified alt rap superhero. He left interviewers (and interview companions) in stitches. He made friends with everyone from Purity Ring to A$AP Mob and TDE, from Mad Decent block parties to the Gathering of the Juggalos, in one of the most insane “all the right places” campaigns in Internet Rap’s young history. He even got his dick sucked on stage. Considering the place he’s been carving out for himself in the culture, it’s easy to see why follow-up expectations were heavy.

But it’s important to remember that that warm reception was belated, and that Danny’s persona was based on the subversive imagination of a real-life outsider. Given Danny’s history, it’s easy to see why playing to expectations might feel a little too easy–or why he might feel it was important to remind us that the story we’re watching goes a little deeper than the caricature.

Download: Danny Brown – “Side A”

As I started to grapple with the first half of the album last week, it occurred to me that the “old Danny Brown” might be two pretty different people, depending on when you started tuning in. Those who’ve been tracking Danny for long enough–or excavating his earlier material–will recall the gruff-voiced dude with the braids, who could’ve scored a G-Unit deal if it wasn’t for his skinny jeans. Even just the folks who spent a decent amount of time with the back half of XXX could tell you that the oddball, punky shtick we’ve all come to know and love was hardly the only thing that made him such a fascinating character.

Looking back on the original “Return of the G”, you can see Andre–maybe in that grass skirt and football pads–making the most cosmic, mindfuckingly brilliant music of his young career, but wondering whether his eccentricity might overshadow the darker, less conspicuous elements of his work. Of course, in Danny’s case, any concept of subtlety is strictly relative. But Old is divided purposefully into two halves, addressing that duality head-on with two very different sets of narratives.

And so the first half of the record makes a few things explicitly clear: 1) Danny is from the hood. In Detroit. 2) Danny came up rough. 3) Danny used to sell drugs. 4) Danny has witnessed, and participated in, some fucked up shit. Of course, his descriptions are a bit more vivid. In “25 Bucks”, mom’s on the stoop slappin oldies, braiding hair to keep the family afloat. On “Gremlins”, he’s sketching out the traps and temptations that turn good kids into goons. On “Wonderbread”, one of the few moments during this stretch where Danny kicks into trademark, high-pitch territory, it’s only in the interest of speaking as an eight year-old version of himself. From a waist-high view, a tiny Danny navigates a maze of baseheads, hookers and racist store clerks on the way to trade in some food stamps–only to get stomped out on the way home.

And then there’s “Torture”. I mean fuck. “Remember one time dog, this fiend owed the boss/ Put peanut butter on her pussy, let his pits lick it off”. Over wailing vocals and bludgeoning drums, Danny takes a moment to walk down a pretty harrowing memory lane: “Was like fuckin’ seven years old, when I first seen a fiend try to light a rock on the stove…nearly burned his top lip off…” With Danny behind the lens, it’s only natural we’d be exposed to some dark shit. But this is personal. Visceral. For the handful of new fans who tend to look at Danny like some kind of pill-popping Nickolodeon character, it’s a harsh reality check.

By the time we hit the comedown introspection of “Lonely” and “Clean Up”, our picture of Danny’s internal life is coming together powerfully. Like XXX, we can feel the anxieties pinging around his skull. But now we’re afforded little glimpses of his deeper motivations too. We learn that mom was practically homeless around the time Pitchfork starting singing his praises. We start to suspect that all that substance bingeing might trace its roots back to something much more sinister, the kind of pain and psychological trauma you don’t shake off just because you start seeing some success.

Download: Danny Brown – “Clean Up”

Okay, so I haven’t talked about the second half yet. And that’s not really fair. There’s less to talk about there, but in some ways, it’s just as impressive as its companion piece. Speaking on the album last month, Danny told Pitchfork, “A majority of my income comes from festivals, so I have to look at that as a business…I’m not going to make a radio song, but I’ll make a song that’ll go off at a festival.” The back half of the album, accordingly, is stacked with heavy bangers–chaotic, frenzied, and full of synthetic slap. This is high-powered, pupil-expanding, technicolor shit, with a religious zeal for fucking and doing drugs. Sonically, it’s skull-rattling power is on par with just about anything in the Diplo-Skrillex-neon-tank-top canon.

But while it’s intended to be a commerce-friendly stretch, it hardly feels like a compromise. Most of these songs are designed to soundtrack nights spent positively zooted, and their intensity matches the experiences they’re supposed to embody. The twitchy thizz freakout, “Dip” and the low-end barrage of “Way Up Here” are all-out sensory assaults, shock and awe. It should hardly come as a surprise if Danny’s “give the people what they want” ends up as a “careful what you wish for”. On “Kush Coma”, he’s seeing stars, falling down the rabbit hole. He’s sweating, yacking in the bathroom sink. “Grindin’ on my teeth while I’m grindin’ on your bitch”. Even if this stuff is geared for maximum fun in certain settings, it’s not exactly comfortable.

The effectiveness of both sides of this thing owes a lot to the production. Credit Paul White for the psychedelic, layered soundscapes that set the tone for side A, tripped-out collages of samples and synth that expand outward continuously without distracting from the show in the foreground. Meanwhile, SKYWLKR and Rustie dish out some of the most explosive, unrelenting productions of the year, stacked with tinny, trapped-out hats and punishing bass rumble. More than anyone else though, credit Danny for having an adventurous ear, and a true talent for curation. French folk-psych samples, muscular nouveau-boom-bap, Spring Breakers synthetic intensity–the eclecticism of the whole thing could easily be disorienting if it wasn’t arranged with such sharp focus.

The return of “new” Danny on side two, in all his animated glory, is entirely strategic. The serotonin-rush that stretches from “Dip” through “Kush Coma” is ruthlessly efficient, proof that Danny’s squarely in control of the louder aspects of his character, and willing to use them as a weapon. And even as he’s harnessing the power of persona as a tool, the album is defined by an unwillingness to fall into gimmicky shit, a refusal to sacrifice on making music that’s more substantial, cathartic, or gratifying to make. Even more so than XXX, Old finds Danny at the height of his powers–both as autobiographer and sonic curator–squeezing the juice of his experiences IllmaticIronman style, and arranging them into a stylistic and narrative arc.

What Danny does with this album isn’t far from what Kendrick did on good kid, but it’s also not too far from say, a Woody Allen film. With Old Danny continues to assert himself as the author of his own story, weaving in all the color and detail and little contradictions of his confounding personality. If Danny’s older than a few of his contemporaries, his years have also taught him some important lessons. Where Old could’ve cashed in on a formula, instead it becomes an opportunity to follow his instincts deeper inward, and create something that defies categorization. Something idiosyncratic. Looking at the structure of Old, it’s tempting to drop the “two sides to every story” cliche. But this is a record that’s about more than the sum of its parts, or the fuzzy archetypes Danny’s trying to shrug off. Old‘s Danny Brown is powerful because he’s three-dimensional.