Review Summary: The two halves of The Hybrid rarely interact, but they don't need to anymore
A recent profile of Danny Brown appearing in The Guardian referred to the Detroit native as “a hip-hop Jekyll and Hyde,” drawing a distinction between him being a “molly-popping sprite” and “a thoughtful man.” The article, like Old
itself, really stresses these two halves of Brown, drawing a line between the party animal and the pensive philosopher-type through his distinctive voice. As Brown himself admits, “…when the low voice comes, you know it’s drama.” Accurate as the article is, it still comes across as strange that the man nicknamed “The Hybrid” would so readily agree that he displays multi-personality syndrome. On XXX
, his ability to integrate the “low voice” into otherwise humorous songs like “Blunt After Blunt” was part of what distinguished him as a performer and really brought the Hybrid to life.
After listening to Old
, the profile begins to make more sense. Like The Guardian, Brown has also made a conscious effort to separate his two temperaments. The first half is the “old” Danny Brown, a more obvious style harkening back to his Detroit State of Mind
and Hot Soup
days while the second is the “new,” a hard partying tour de force heavily indebted to the UK grime scene. Mercifully, the article is a bit misleading, his voice is as elastic as ever on both halves, but the contrasting styles are as distinct as his two voices. In fact the rift between the two sides is wider than ever. Brown’s schismatic personas have become radicalized to the point where coexistence seems impossible.
The biggest difference between Old
, the most obvious reference point and the perceived division between “old” and “new” Danny, is his role as a narrator. Old
is all over the place- bringing in guest stars, telling all sorts of stories and glamorizing drug use- even while sticking to overarching vinyl record-style construction. Its main focus seems to be it has no focus. Brown often alludes to his bi-polar tendencies and it shows through; all his emotions are amplified and the songs are loud as hell, especially on the drug-addled second side. XXX
, meanwhile, was a very introspective album. It had its moments of silliness (Cool Ranch Doritos anyone?) but those are overshadowed by the moments of soul-baring honesty; “*** so personal my mom can’t listen to it” was the perfect tagline. Whereas XXX
was an album about Danny Brown’s life, Old
is an album about life in general.
Thus, Brown fancies himself a bit of a raconteur on this record. All his stories feature himself prominently, yet they don’t carry the same deeply personal significance. It could be anybody getting jumped on the way to buy Wonderbread or wearing jackets in the kitchen, not just the crazy-haired MC. His stories don’t have morals, but they do have vivid imagery, so much so you could put yourself in his position, be it peering down the scope of an AK or running from the narcs. It’s a very measured and encompassing listen, focusing on hooks and repetition of lyrics and themes while using the beats to signify mood. Rustie’s composition on “Side B (Dope Song)” is exceptional because its chord-heavy intro bleeds into bare, staccato synth pulses. The transition bridges the gap between the layered, more traditional beats and the schizophrenic, almost psychedelic ones. As soon as Brown opens his mouth, the switch is flipped; it’s time to party.
Strangely, for as meticulously constructed as this seems, Old
has a very hard time building energy. The first half has many commendable individual tracks, but they don’t seem to have any chemistry. Opener “Side A” speeds by, right into a dead end: the Outkast ode “The Return.” Brown, doing his best version of Andre 3000, sounds lost on a construction that eats him alive. Guest star Freddie Gibbs fares a little better- one of two guest stars who upstages Brown; UK grime personality Scruffizer is the other, on questionable inclusion “Dubstep”- but the song is a brick wall, a murky tribute struggling to find an identity. Some of the sequencing issues were out of Brown’s hands: original closer “ODB” failed to clear its samples and was left off. “Float On” was an adequate replacement but, in context, “ODB” would have been exponentially more powerful.
“Did it my way, I ain’t nobody ho” Brown raps on “Red 2 Go,” which stands out more than any other line. Years ago, Brown was targeted by 50 Cent to join G-Unit, but was let go soon after because he refused to change his erratic sense of style. When XXX
was released, it was a free download because he didn’t think anyone would want to pay for his material. Old
continues the tradition, being streamed on Spotify a week ahead of the physical release because Brown wanted it that way. He isn’t fettered by the industry nor by his collaborators. Gibbs’ verse is basically an imitation of Big Boi, A$AP Rocky sounds foolish trying to keep up on "Kush Coma" and Charli XCX contributes little more than backup vocals. They may not have much star power, but they still bend to Brown’s will; he’s the captain of his own destiny, even if there are other parties involved. The penultimate line of his Guardian profile is “And now I'm a rapper. If I died tomorrow, I did it.” Everything about Danny is black and white- his vocation, his personas, his voices- but when you mix it all together, you get a beautiful shade of Brown.