You don’t get extra credit for being ahead of your time. In fact, you usually get penalized. Music history is replete with experimental artists whose songs fall on deaf ears, only for a mainstream artist to sanitize their original ideas, re-package them in a more marketable format, and reap a commercial windfall. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call that being Draked.
When Danny Brown first came out, I wondered if there was significant room for a shit-talking Detroit street rapper, who was equally adept in writing songs about friends that were magicians with the Tec (“make a chain disappear and re-appear on his neck”) and white homies with prescription addictions. But Daniel Sewell was too smart to get stuck in that Audiomack shadowlands. He studied Bowie and Arthur Lee, cut his hair asymmetrically, aligned himself with A-Trak and Fools Gold, and won the co-signs of A$AP, Shady Records, and TDE. The timing was right too. With the Odd Future wave cresting, eccentric rappers achieved a new social currency, and few if any could match Brown’s eclecticism or sheer rapping ability. You can’t survive in the D if you can’t rap, and Danny Brown artfully bridged the gap between Black Milk and Boy Better Know.
It’s been three full years since Old — our 2013 Album of the Year. That’s practically a generation in rap time. The breakout star from the Odd Future hype tempest turned out to be Vince Staples, who wasn’t even in OF. Yams is dead. Prince is dead. Bowie is dead. And Danny Brown, Kanye, and Thugga are probably the closest things that we have to legitimate heirs to the latter two. I’ll spare the hyperbolic comparisons, but for the sake of making them, at the very least, Danny has the intelligence, vision, and spirit of reinvention that make each one of his projects a legitimate event.
If it’s been three years it’s because it takes time for the concepts to fully gestate. At 35 years old, Brown could basically just rap over whatever the current bass music BPM trend is, add a few boom-bap songs for traditionalists, and coast for the next decade. But that’s never been his way, the old Danny Brown is always new. In the half-decade since he first emerged, he’s refused to stand still. So here’s “When it Rain,” the latest iteration, released in tandem with the announcement that he’s on Warp Records — the same label as Boards of Canada, Flying Lotus, and Aphex Twin, a catch-all imprint for those whose songs are constantly shifting.
His new song doubles down on the Detroit influence, infused with ghetto-tech influence, Detroit techno, abandoned house rawness, and that adenoidal voice delivered with velociraptor force. The closest antecedent in his catalogue might be “Dip,” but it’s darker than most of the second half of Old — at least musically — courtesy of a beat from his frequent collaborator, Paul White. The lyrics continue to retain the haunted post-traumatic drugged out tendencies that make his earlier work so visceral. He’s hanging with the devil off angel dust, sinning every day like it’s about to be the end, stuck in the rain with dark clouds hanging, living in a city where everyone has warrants. It’s so Detroit there’s a Trick Trick reference. It’s so Midwest, there’s a Percolator reference.
The video is an epileptic fit of old VHS clips and sepia tint — shoots of Detroit street signs, old Public Access videos, sadistic cartoons, clenched fists, dance routines, syringe injections, and crew shots. Few if any rappers do darkness more convincingly than Danny Brown. If grime is the latest trend to splinter into the American hip-hop zeitgeist, he was name-dropping Roll Deep since before most of these rappers had their first roll. You can also hear it effortlessly integrated into his sound. This is what a homegrown US edition of grime would sound like: fast and filthy, totally lightless aside from the flame of the spliff. This is ahead of the pack, but very much of the present, doom-rap in double-time, ideal to soundtrack the party or the pill overdose — cognizant that those are often the same thing.