The First Cut is the Deepest: On the Early Days of Danny Brown

Jack Spencer sifts through Danny Brown's early mixtape output to find the can't miss moments.
By    July 27, 2016

danny brown

Jack Spencer likes your old stuff better.

Danny Brown said he was the greatest before he knew he was. The declaration was the emphatic coda for the opening of The Hybrid and the breathless reassurance amidst the suicide-stricken finale to XXX; self-aggrandizement and self-affirmation, respectively, it was also an assertion that Brown has had his legacy in mind since he first broke. An ever-shifting approach has kept him viable even after almost three years since the release of Old, and kept listeners guessing where he’s going next.

Danny Brown’s latest video for “When It Rain” is as bleak, distorted, and tense as his frantic flow and the Delia Derbyshire-sampling Paul White beat, and where Hybrid-era videos would share its glitch aesthetic but instead highlight scenes of drug sales and copper-stripping, dance is the focal visual point of the new video.

It’s fitting, as it’s entirely possible that a subsection of Danny Brown fans were introduced to his work solely through his festival shows and ecstatic performances; for entertainment they watch his body twist, and he’s knowingly adapted his style, voicing, and subject matter to play to the concert audience.

If you see Danny Brown at this weekend’s Lollapalooza, the likelihood of hearing anything that came before Brown’s experimental masterpiece XXX is slim to none. But, even though a core theme of his most recent record (2013’s Old) is moving past his former work and self, Brown’s string of excellent mixtapes early on his career remain an important piece of his evolution and a reminder of the full breadth of his ability. Below are five songs that represent Danny Brown’s early work, and contextualize where he’s gone since then:

“Detroit Street Broadcaster” – from Detroit State of Mind 1

With a profound grasp for the minute details about life in poverty, Danny Brown knows how to tackle the difficulties of struggle both broad and in-depth and build compelling imagery. “Detroit Street Broadcaster” is a prime early example of Brown’s proclivity to delve into his surroundings. Over a rock-tinged drum-heavy beat, he zooms in to really drive his points about growing from hardship home: “No water in the house / underarm musk / pouring water in the toilet just to make the fucker flush” he raps at one point. Brown still utilizes this level of intricacy in his current music, though it is hazier in the light of his current high-pitched vocal style.

“No Hoe” – from Detroit State of Mind 3

Danny Brown has got a knack for hooks, and when he wanted to, he could sink into a beat and find exactly the right tonality to drive a chorus home. Danny hits upon one of his many signature inflections in “No Hoe” and foreshadows a slew of bangers that would come after his mixtape run which pull from a similar vein. As his beats have gotten more complex, he’s been able to bring more nuance to this sound, but these early instances show how he came to outgrow the sometimes boilerplate mixtape beats by transcending their straightforward nature.

“What Yo Name Is?” – from It’s A Art

Having established an exceptionally raunchy explicitness that colors most of his sex-themed material, Danny Brown’s closer to the spectacular and nuanced It’s A Art with producers Johnson&Jonson (Blu and Mainframe) plays with this reputation by shifting from a direct sexual assertion to a whispered come-on, seducing the subject with a rarely-exercised subtlety over a nearly-bare hissing beat. It’s a level of restraint he’s rarely matched (contrasted earlier on the record by the hooky, dirty-minded cunnilingus anthem “Peaches”), but not once here does he slip into the debauched advances of someone whose website features porn gifs as menu rollover images. As is most of his work, this song is best understood in context, and knowing what Danny’s not saying on this track makes it that much more mesmeric.

Tony Yayo & Danny Brown ft. Lil B – “Trippin’’” from Hawaiian Snow

Danny Brown’s branding—an intentionally overlapping blur of hood inflection and hipster aesthetic—made some early fans unsure of what to make of the rapper’s full composite, but unable to deny the strength of the sound. How someone who rapped with such unrelenting grit could wear that confounded some, and Brown himself said on The Breakfast Club that his potential deal with G-Unit fell through because 50 Cent didn’t like his pants.

Longtime supporter Tony Yayo did have Brown out to New York for a few month stint around that period, which led to the recording of their underrated collaborative effort Hawaiian Snow, which finds a weird little pocket of simplified-wavy that somehow suits both Yayo’s blasé coke-raps and Brown’s nasally brags. Another favorite of Yayo at the time, Lil B makes a couple appearances on the tape, exemplifying how Danny Brown sits comfortably between the hard-edged proclivities of Yayo’s crew and Lil B’s experimental boundary-pushing. Also notable here is Brown’s prophetic line: “Way these bitches on me, man, it’s sexual harassment,” a punchline precursor to the infamous onstage fellatio incident years later.

“Let’s Go” – from Hot Soup

Similar to the eclecticism of It’s A Art, the strong Hot Soup project found Danny Brown playing with his sound to discover new potential in his style, but with a particular ear for palatability and radio play. Highlighting a typical day of riding around with nowhere to go, it’s a slice of Detroit life that’s evocative but downplayed, letting the track’s smoothness guide the vocal textures for an airy, laid-back vibe. It speaks to Danny’s potential as a hungry rapper who was willing to try whatever worked to get on, molding and growing his sound rather than abandoning pieces of it.

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