Danny Brown, ‘Old’ [ALBUM REVIEW]
“Colder than them grits they fed slaves / me to rap is like water to raves”. That’s the opening line of Danny Brown’s magnum opus, ‘XXX’, an album that still echoes over two years later both within contemporary rap and among the annals of the genre. It’s one of the best rap albums in years, peering into abandoned metal yards, hopping fences, staying up for days, never leaving the house, and finally collapsing, exhausted, with the relief of making it to see 30 years of age. Listeners usually like when an artist never loses their hunger; Danny Brown raps like he needs to get paid as soon as he exits the booth. It sounds like he’s trying to drop the best verse of his career every time he’s on a record.
‘Old’ is as fascinating as the human condition itself: part frantic, part mellow, brutally honest, artfully subtle. Originally intended to be called ‘ODB’ (mirroring Danny’s multidimensional, unpredictable mic presence), the album awakens after the last one emptied all of Danny’s lifelong frustrations in ‘30’ – the most searing, breathtaking, uncomfortably honest scream-rap since ‘Kim’. Danny bore it all on ‘XXX’, riffing on girls who constantly party, cokeheads (crystallized in the image of “Nosebleeds”), impending depression, and his own dependence on drugs.
Shadows of the broken down ghost town that is his home of Detroit loom over the entire project, but on ‘Old’ the city’s characters are full-frontal: needles in arms, fiends in halfway houses, family members smoking crack off the stove (Danny describes watching a drug user almost burn his top lip off by trying this on ‘Torture’).
If you’re not used to Danny’s startling intensity, both stylistically and content wise, it can all be a bit jarring at first. But if you know Danny’s steez, then ‘Old’ is cause for pure ebullience, although the subject matter is far from sunny – ‘Wonderbread’ is the tale of an uncanny yet totally normal walk to the store through the eyes of young Danny, ‘Torture’ is witness to the horrifying reality of shootings and domestic violence, and ‘25 Bucks’ frames pain and poverty through his mother’s side hustle. It’s places like these where the old Danny Brown is truly resurrected: the same mean-mugging heatpacker from the ‘Detroit State of Mind’ mixtapes, smoking Swishers back to back just to get some shut-eye. His Benzo-laden slow flow on ‘Lonely’ sounds like it would fit right at home on ‘The Hybrid: Cutting Room Floor’.
Like ‘XXX’, ‘Old’ is split into two sides, an introspective, downtrodden side A and a yipped up, hyperactive, club-ready side B. The latter features beats from Darq E. Freaker, A-Trak, and Rustie, all of whom underline Danny’s taste for grime and electronic music while elsewhere, Purity Ring and Charli XCX provide models for pop appeal without any whorish attempts to crossover on Danny’s part. Brown claims that this energetic second half of the album is a celebration following the hardships of the first (he”s claimed that sides A and B are bookends to ‘XXX’, describing life before and after the narrative of that album), and while songs like ‘Dip’ and ‘Handstand’ are infectiously fun, the album takes on a fascinating theme when these party anthems are seen as the aftermath of Danny’s brooding malaise. On the elastic ‘Smokin and Drinkin,’ what seems like a lighthearted Trap song has underpinnings of anxiety and the need for escape as Danny gulps down Zans with alcohol to relieve some stress. He claims to be worry-free on the fizzing ‘Dubstep’, which slyly appropriates the word as something of a “f— you” to the ‘Harlem Shake’ craze (at least I’d like to think), but Side B ends with Danny in a ‘Kush Coma’, smoking so much broccoli that he’s become a vegetable. Then he hops in a spaceship with a Backwood and some lean to take off from this cruel Earth on album closer ‘Float On’ alongside the heavenly Charli XCX and the indispensable Frank Dukes on the boards. Danny can’t help but slip back into drugged out tranquility while maintaining the conviction that without all these pills, he wouldn’t be alive today. Anyone who’s ever looked to drugs as a refuge instead of a night-booster can certainly relate to that kind of desperation.
Whereas Danny was upfront and even brash about being the ‘Adderall Admiral’ on ‘XXX’, his relationship with drugs has morphed from dependence to sustenance, and he’s adjusted the microscope to criticize other aspects of his newfound success, like materialism and family relationships. For someone whose calling card seems to be Molly and pussy that smells like Cool Ranch Doritos, it’s a breath of brisk air to hear him get so sullen and existential on a song like ‘Clean Up’, where Paul White cradles a banging rainforest of a beat on which Danny laments his lack of fulfillment despite a ballooning back account. He’s lonely and perhaps a bit bi-polar, but he’s utterly human, so the need to numb out and forget his problems is endearing to fans that want the best for him.