Son Raw makes 2 Live Crew look like some Mormons.
Danny Brown ended XXX with a pained howl that would have made a fitting epigraph had drugs, violence or jail snuffed out his promising rap career.
Thing is, that didn’t happen.
Against all odds, the skinny jeans-wearing backpack-rapper with a blown out haircut and encyclopedic musical knowledge not only parlayed that free release into underground recognition, he then went on an exhausting run of never-ending tours and guest spots. He perfected a madcap persona that grabbed hipsters, ravers and rap heads alike. There was the MDMA addled interview with A$AP Rocky, the outreach to Grime, the infamous felatio-incident and enough partying to kill a man half his age. Now, on the cusp of genuine rap stardom, Danny Brown delivers Old, an album as honest as it is uncompromised — the biggest challenge to Hip-Hop’s status quo since Kendrick delivered Good Kid, m.A.A.d City.
If XXX was Danny’s Ready to Die, a nihilistic street narrative told in the present tense, Old just might be his Life After Death: an album that asks what happens when you finally escape the streets, but remain haunted by your past. Of course there’s no Puffy here, but Brown doesn’t need an overbearing executive to shape his vision – this is a guy who claimed he wrote XXX to get good reviews. As such, Old is impeccably sequenced, charting Brown’s life from his drug-dealing past to his party-starting future, mirroring a classic rap career arc in structure. What sets Danny Brown apart from his peers however, is his painstaking lyrical perfectionism and bold musical choices. Nothing is left to chance here: every line sticks, every beat fits like a glove.
Side A tackles Danny Brown’s “old” life over dark, dusty Boom-Bap, but whereas he previously rapped about the street with manic glee, Old is a constant reminder of how poverty robs people of their dignity and lives. Gone are the gross-out lines about Doritos, instead we’re left with stories of paranoia, depression and cruelty delivered in half-blunted delivery miles from Brown’s trademark yelp. Far from being a downer however, Brown’s attention to detail along with outstanding beats by Paul White and Oh No elevate Old’s first half into a grim-faced counterpoint to XXX’s excesses. Nor does the record wallow in its own misery — Side A ends with a series of songs documenting how Danny Brown took his fate into his own hands, pulled himself together and launched his rap career. By the time the first half ends with “Red2Go,” Old’s sole punch line track, the message is clear: selling drugs sucks and no one can blame Danny Brown for leaving that life behind.
Enter Side B. From the moment the dramatic intro hits on the Rustie-produced “Dope Song,” you know you’re in for a change of mood. Old abandons boom-bap for high energy rave anthems custom made for Danny Brown’s now infamous live show. On first glance, this is a cynical move: fodder for the molly-addled masses to grind their teeth. However, a closer look reveals songs as well written as those on Old’s opening half. The aforementioned “Dope Song” castigates geriatric crack rappers with “10 year old stories.” “Dubstep” features a brilliant turn from Scruffizer and a beat that’s way better than a song with that title should ever have. “Smokin’ & Drinkin’,” “Handstand,” and “Way Up Here” might be thematically obvious but Brown is too smart to make mediocre music, choosing impeccable perfection that serves as a maniacal flipside to his earlier sampledelia. Best of all is “Dip,” perhaps the molly-related rap song that actually sounds like an MDMA experience: euphoric but also dark, jittery to the point of paranoia and teetering on the edge of disaster. It’s a song about getting fucked up with a capital F and if Brown’s delivery says he’s having fun, lyrics like “Eyes keep shaking and I can’t stay focused” and “I’m sweating but I’m cold, mouth all dry but I got a runny nose” remind us that this all comes with a price. Or as Danny Brown says it: “it’s obvious we got some problems, so bitch, let’s kill that pain.”
Danny Brown finally exorcises his demons on the maximalist “Kush Coma” (far better in context than as a single) and the album comes to a close with “Float On,” a quiet, thoughtful ballad summing up the album’s hopes and contractions. It’s a sobering moment of clarity after a night of debauchery and a reminder that behind all of the sex and drugs, what Danny Brown loves most is…rap. It’s a love that shows throughout Old, and while some more conservative fans may be turned off by Side B’s futuristic production choices or Side A’s lack of humor, Danny Brown need not worry — with Old, he’s made an impact on this genre of music. STYLE.