Review Summary: Ol' Danny Brown cements his legacy in the rap game with his proper debut album.
The last time we heard from Danny Brown, he was busy warning us things are only going to get darker. XXX
was as murky, combative and depressing as a drug-fueled introspection should be, and its fundamental dilemma was that because of these factors, it was difficult to listen to. Brown revealed his inner thoughts, and we saw all the booze-stained lyric papers, every last discarded pill bottle and condom sprawled across the recesses of his mind. And this happened because of only one thing, his blunt performance behind the microphone. Sure, the beats contributed to the grayscale palette of XXX
, but those verses sealed the deal
, man-- when he spat “Tell mommy I'm sorry, God bless my soul, but life is so sublime going out like Brad Nowell,” I could see it all: Danny Brown, 30, found dead from a heroin overdose in the bathroom stall after his most recent show. When I hear that line in “Die Like a Rockstar,” Brown and me are imagining the same thing-- the consequences of him continuing the erratic lifestyle he knows is drilling him in the coffin.
With such extreme lifestyles comes a story that only its narrator can tell, and for artists like Danny Brown, it’s inevitable for the listener to end up feeling some sort of attachment to the art at hand. The music is beautifully ugly in content, and for some of us, is relevant when it certainly seems it shouldn't be. One of the main things XXX
’s follow-up teaches, that Brown’s life has turned out in the way it was bound to-- he was raised in unfortunate circumstances, and they’ve shaken him to release music that takes him to a happier place.
And in regard to escapists’ music, what better band to look to for inspiration than Radiohead? Brown has stated numerous times that Old
is inspired by the aesthetics of Kid A
, and how that release focused on atmosphere. He values rappers based on their ability to perform over eccentric beats, which is why the production on this record is so dynamic-- Danny wants to exceed listeners’ expectations. And Old
certainly is focused on production, showcasing disparate elements of electronic and rap music into one all-encompassing journey. Lyrics are still essential to this journey, though, as the record’s childhood reflections in its early stages will tell you: “25 Bucks” recalls early memories with drugs, while “Gremlins” tells the tale of how Brown would sometimes steal to make ends meet. And in “Torture,” the most revealing song on the record, he remembers the scarring memory he has of his uncle:
“Was like fucking seven years old when I first seen a fiend try to light a rock off the stove
Damn near burned his top lip off, so my mind ticked off
Desensitized to a lotta things, mind would drift off"
Even though the emphasis of the record is on its expansive production, the lyrics are more telling than they’ve ever been. While each song has a solid musical backbone, it’s Brown’s narratives that make the most profound impact, and move the album forward.
What about the different voices Brown used on his previous mixtapes? The first lyric of “Lonely” is “hipster by heart, but I can tell you how the streets feel” -- which paints a perfect picture of 'Ol Danny Brown's multiple personalities pervading Old
. He’s always been a weirdo, claiming that even now, he’s too street for strange folk and too strange for the street. Side A of Old
is the half of the record that shows off the latter Danny Brown, the rapper who was rejected from 50 Cent’s G-Unit troupe because of his vivid fashion sense. And Side B is the street segment, the moment where trap and grime influences combine to create some of the filthiest beats heard this year, courtesy of electronic producers SKYWLKR (Brown’s associate from his group Bruiser Brigade) and Rustie.
In terms of structure, Old
differs widely from its predecessor. While XXX
became more serious as it went, this album gives more and more of an illusion of being a rave-ready record as it progresses. As the trap influences pervade the album, especially in the four-song run from “Dip” to “Handstand,” Brown loses himself in the afterglow of Side B’s party. He goes off the loose end with drugs and sex, and recuperates only to jump right back into numbness. Because as we know from journal entries like “Torture”, Brown can’t sleep. When he does, his dreams are more akin to nightmares. As the smoke rings grow wider, and as the record grows closer to its denouement, Danny Brown knows something has to change.
This is the story "Kush Coma" presents us with. The penultimate track on Old
, it's anything but a party song-- Brown and ASAP Rocky trade lines about how they lose themselves because of drugs, the song’s main antagonist. After all this time, Brown just wants a say-- no more kowtowing to addictions. That's what this album is all about, one of the most distinctive rappers of our era finally growing up. Even though there are still a few tracks about sex here, it’s less important than it used to be. He'd prefer to watch comics with himself than party it up with girls he's never met, because he’s accustomed to being alone by now. This is why much of Old
is introspective instead of faux-celebratory-- the partying bandages the depression.
This album is the afterbirth of a reckless lifestyle, the end product of choices made unerringly in the morning hours when everyone else is asleep. But despite the fact that Old
exists because of some god-awful experiences, Danny Brown can only look ahead. He’s pined to be an integral part of the rap game for years now-- upon spending eight months in jail, he wrote verses to J Dilla’s Donuts
to escape reality. Now, instead of worrying about if he’s going to survive another year, Danny’s concerned with the big game-- how much of his own success he’ll be able to witness in his lifetime. Something tells me if he lasts just another six months, he’ll be utterly pleased with what he sees, and that things are finally looking up.