Anyone who saw the transition of ‘Gangsta rap’ to the mainstream during the 90s – and the resultant exclusion of rappers who failed to conform to that archetype – would probably be surprised by the state of hip hop today. Arguably, the three biggest forces in recent times have been Kendrick Lamar, Drake and Kanye West. And hailing from Compton, Canada and Chicago respectively, with completely different styles, influences and focuses, the three icons demonstrate the newly found expansiveness of the genre. But perhaps their uniting factor is a seemingly rare, and emphatic ability to switch between over-the-top extravagance and the intimately personal. Well, it seems the triumvirate may have found a fourth member – Danny Brown takes this ability and puts it into overdrive.
He claims to have wanted to be a rapper since kindergarten, and he’s certainly paid his dues. Old is Brown’s third studio album, and if one includes his comprehensive list of EPs and mixtapes, his fifteenth full length release. It’s a little surprising then, that it was only at the age of 29, on his first studio album, The Hybrid, that he began to find his voice. And in Brown’s case, the idiom applies literally too, as the album’s title track saw the genesis of his now-signature, high-pitched yelp. This new sound fitted Brown’s demeanour as tightly as the jeans that lost him a record deal with G-Unit.
Yet, while Brown’s appearance doesn’t exactly scream ‘hard-core gangster’, the accusations of ‘softness’ do recall another rapper – André 3000. It’s a parallel that he himself recognises on Old’s second track, ‘The Return’ which he has described as the second part to Outkast’s ‘Return of the G’. The idea behind this track is one of the numerous meanings of the album’s title, Old. He’s described it as referencing his age itself, the idea that people “want that old Danny Brown”, and the impression of a tortured past that pervades the album.
As he told Complex, “There’s people that don’t want to hear me do double-time over electronic beats. They want me to rap over J. Dilla beats about selling dope. I haven’t sold drugs in over 10 years. I’m not about to be rapping about that shit no more.” And although there’s plenty of double-time rapping over electronic beats on Old, Brown isn’t as ready to shun the old Danny Brown as his words suggest. Split into two halves, Side A and Side B, it’s easy to label one side “the old Danny Brown” and the other the “new”. This distinction can also be formulated as a divide between the more personal and the more profligate tracks. But to look at the album like this is to misunderstand its complexities. On Old, the depravity, hedonism and perverse wit that saturated XXX blend seamlessly with the tales of tormenting sights and real-life struggles of growing up in Detroit. Even the most markedly debaucherous track on the album, ‘Dip’, hints at the inner turmoil that he’s carried from his youth; the dissipation is his means of distraction – “so bitch let’s kill that pain”.
A better means of distinguishing the different moods of the album is Brown’s voice itself. The first and last tracks from the mini-trilogy that makes up the album’s most distressing moment – ‘Torture’, ‘Lonely’ and ‘Clean Up’ – have Brown using a tone so low-pitched that it makes one double-check it’s him who’s actually rapping. But he is, and brilliantly so. ‘Torture’ – one of the most disturbing tracks of the past few years – is littered with the horrifying images that inundated his childhood and now prevent him from sleeping. The imageries of his uncle beating his aunt, of “dope fiends” beating one another with hammers, and of being so cold that he had to sleep with sneakers on are both personal and microcosmic. Like much of the album, the narrative is embedded with such candidness and emotion that it would be overwhelming if Brown weren’t as talented a lyricist as he is. But when his song-craft is twinned with his brusque, enigmatic flow and impeccable delivery, we see a rapper that is right up there with the best in the game right now.
And yet, for all the album’s lyrical and narrative virtuosity, the words are intentionally overshadowed by the music. In an interview with Pitchfork, Brown stated his intention to emulate Kid A with Old, insofar as he wanted to follow one critically acclaimed album with an even better one. “So I studied Kid A, and I took away that it’s not so much about the lyrics as it is about the way the beats feel, so what drives this album is the production. I wanted to have the most amazing beats, but I still want them to sound minimal – it’s still gotta sound like a Danny Brown beat. It can’t sound like no fucking Kanye orchestra shit. That ain’t me. That’s why I took so long with making this album. I was waiting for the perfect beats. And I got ’em.” This may sound like ordinary rapper bravado, but it isn’t. He really, really, did. From start to finish, Old boasts some of the best, most progressive hip-hop production of recent times. The epic – whisper it – orchestral intro to ‘Side B (Dope Song)’ that abruptly transitions into juddering synth pulses and then traditional hip-hop claps and a thumping bass undercurrent (that sounds more like A-Trak than the track that he actually produced on the album), are the perfect mirror to the rasping yelp that Brown barks over it. But there’s also the Purity Ring-featuring and Corin Roddick-produced ‘25 Bucks’ which manages to combine their signature electro-pop sound with a muffled, reverberating hip-hop bass; there’s the awesomely nonchalant beat that Brown bounces through on ‘Lonely’, and the chaotic, frenetic ‘Dip’.
The huge variety of sounds on Old creates a breath-taking sonic soundscape, and only a rapper as talented as Brown proves himself to be could keep up with it. And he does more than that; he shines through it. This is a hip-hop album that thrusts him to the very top tier of the genre. On the album’s closer, ‘Float On’, he utters, “And now I, got the whole world listening/Give your ear for a second, a life changing decision”. It doesn’t sound like an order, but it doesn’t need to. He’s got the world listening, and they aren’t going to stop.
Check out our Track of the Day of Brown’s ‘Dip’.