Relatability has always been an underrated virtue in hip-hop. Like summertime flicks, fans and critics will always opt for martians and goblins. Or cowboys and aliens in the case of Bone Thugs N’ Harmony and Outkast. Besides, I think we can all agree that the phrase “everyman rap” is somehow even more boring than two Billionaires bitching about Basquiat.
I’m talking about a different kind of relatability. Be it intellectual or emotional or something completely intangible. I guarantee that the Penthouse Players Clique and I share minimal biographical detail, but in the wake of a bad break-up, there is no song I’d rather hear than “Truss No Bitch.” There is more knowledge instilled in “Captain Save-A-Ho” than in 250 pages of A Visit from the Goon Squad. (No Plies). My favorite rappers always impart knowledge that you can use in your day to day.
That’s not to discount pure chimerical imagination. Rick Ross described himself as being so large that he blows fog in the Taj Mahal and that’s the best imagery I’ve heard all year. Relateability isn’t a prerequisite, but rather a nice bonus. So I suppose I like Danny Brown’s music not only because he raps smoke rings around most of his peers, but because for me, XXX is the most identifiable rap record this year.
Exactly six weeks from today, I turn 30. While I’m not exactly thrilled about it, I’m also not running from its inevitability, nor am I buying snapbacks or skinny jeans. After all, George Clooney is there to exist as the repository of every American male’s secret hopes: that not only will the advance of time bring obscene fortune it will leave you looking more handsome than ever before. XXX is about the opposite of that idea. What happens if you turn 30 and start freaking the fuck out that your career isn’t where it needs to be. Worrying that if you don’t deliver soon you’ll end up more George Hamilton. And yet rather than try to mask his age like most 30-year rappers who shout “swag” like they were “20,” Brown is about aging gracefully while watching porn next to a naked girl named Grace.
Fear of failure is a steady theme, but more than that is the idea of relentlessness and a refusal of stasis. Over the last year, Danny Brown went from anonymous Motown mixtape rapper to Fat Beats-feted, and then earned the co-signs of ex-Def Jukies and the keys to the Fools Gold hipster harem. Not bad for a 29 year old who had been steadily grinding since 05 to minor acclaim.
But rather than rest on the little buzz he built, XXX is the sound of the Hybrid accelerating into the void. The chemical alchemy of sleepless nights and self-imposed deadlines, taking drugs to wring every last ounce of creativity out of your weary head. Huffing Newports and blunts with equal voracity. For someone who wrote until 4:30 in the morning last night, blasted off bong rips and Adderall, not only can I empathize, I can say that no record captures my frayed mind better. It’s about feeling a sense of desperation but refusing to be desperate, trusting in the old-fashioned values of self-respect and work ethic, while relying on next generation drugs and THC levels that would stun a Woodstock veteran. Or knowing that your substance abuse fixation is as much genetic as a desire to avoid the generic. Fearing death and tiptoeing until you find out where the exact point is that’s one toke over the line.
Of course, this is Danny Brown, so half of it is gleefully ignorant sex jokes. Some funny, some gross, all of them in stark opposition to DJ Quik’s “Can I Eat It.” As he said on his Twitter, The Hybrid was about punchlines, this is about patterns and intricate wordplay. Though on “Outer Space” alone, he drops my favorite punchline of the year: you have no clue like toy stores without board games. Later on, he plans to fuck your mother with two rubbers and claims that she says his dick tastes like tropical fruit skittles. Basically, he’s the best qualities of the Based God and Elzhi rolled into one.
So I can tell you that I prefer The Hybrid (I do). Occasionally, the beats on XXX suffer under the weight of their ambition to be avant-garde party jams. And the best way to make fun of radio songs is by making a great album without a radio song. But even it’s failings strive from a relentless desire for perfection. At its best (“XXX,” Die Like a Rock Star,” “DNA” “Pac Blood,” “30”), there are few more chilling and resonant rap records in recent memory. This is the sort of record that solidifies Danny Brown in any current top 10 that you might construct. The Adderall Admiral deserves a 21-gun salute and a nap.