Danny Brown’s Road to ‘Old’

September 30, 2013 | Matthew Ramirez

No one was prepared for Danny Brown’s XXX, a five-star, perfect ten, best-of-decade contender that instantly became one of my favorite records ever. Coming off eight full-length mixtapes and one LP, Danny Brown achieved something he’d aimed toward his entire career, yet for a mainstream audience, XXX was the perfect debut. He has two separate careers: one that led up through 2010’s The Hybrid, then XXX and everything after. Now, with today’s release of Old, he’s dropping the sophomore record of phase two.

As he said on XXX‘s “30,” (his age when it was released) “I never learned to rap, always knew how.” This instinctive pull is loud and clear in his music–Brown doesn’t rely on cypher-rat, lyrically-lyrical-spiritual-physical-empirical hackneyed internal rhyme schemes, but his voice, which can communicate in, like, four different wavelengths (manic, conversational, light-hearted, deadly serious), belies a versatility that sounds great on literally every kind of beat, a glue adhering “the Shakespeare of sixteens” together. Consider some of his tourmates since 2011: Das Racist, Childish Gambino, Kitty Pryde, ASAP Rocky, Schoolboy Q, Baauer, Action Bronson. You could draw a diagram of nearly every popular/independent rapper who matters beyond that list and Brown could be linked to all of them.

Here are some highlights of the run of one-offs and guest verses the rapper put out between XXX‘s 2011 release and now, Danny Brown’s road to Old.

“Blueberry (Pills and Cocaine)” (Single, April 2012)

For a guy who firmly made his name on some sixteen-bar, introspective rap shit, Brown didn’t shy away from drug music, but in 2012 he became the figurehead for rapping about molly over loud, party-starting electro beats. It was a surprising turn, sometimes to mixed results, but this is the best example of this style, a manic ode to all kinds of party drugs that rode a Euro-wave beat from London producer Darq-E-Freaker, who laced Brown with a nasty house thump that sounds influenced by OG Detroit techno.

“Grown Up” (Single, June 2012)

This became his signature song, a quick two-minute trifle that plays like a condensed, PG-13 version of XXX (literally–released in conjunction with Scion, the official version and video edits all curse words and drug references, but an explicit single exists). Atop a chord progression that instantly recalls Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side,” Brown raps his life story and creates a calling card for his style, background, delivery, and his savvy, economic, way with words. It didn’t hurt that the video was great, either.

“Oh Hail No,” El-P, Cancer for Cure (May 2012), & “1 Train,” ASAP Rocky, LongLiveASAP (January 2013)

Brown destroying everyone on a posse cut. And he’s not bumming around with a bunch of slouches, either: El-P, Despot, Kendrick Lamar, Yelawolf, and Big K.R.I.T. are some of the meanest MCs working. El-P’s wall-of-sound production drops off before Brown’s signature ad-lib, “CHECK!” on “Oh Hail No,” which Red Sea-parts a show-stopping performance. On both songs he’s just rapping about getting head and having sex but the joyful glee apparent in his rhymes are more addictive than others’ consonant gymnastics.

“Razorblade,” Tony Yayo, El Chapo 2 (February 2012)

An overlooked track that’s notable because Brown and G-Unit affiliate Tony Yayo released a joint mixtape, Hawaiian Snow, back in 2010. (Brown was briefly signed to G-Unit.) It’s one of his few post-XXX features not delivered in a high-pitched honk, but an emotive flow that recalls Snoop Dogg at his most blunted. He raps about selling drugs, not using them, and with Brown it’s so methodical: there’s no glamour, no self-conscious grit, and only a smidge of guilt–it’s all business, which makes it even more haunting.

“Terrorist Threats,” Ab-Soul, Control System (May 2012)

This is the closest Brown has come to recapturing the heart, fury, frustration, and passion of XXX since that record’s release, with a final verse that creates a thematic contrast to Soul’s conspiracy theories. Where Soul’s in the clouds, Brown’s on the ground, knowing he “can’t get a job if they drug test me,” and deadpanning “feel my pain, I’m going insane.” It’s also a nasty verse because it takes dead aim at a government that defunds SNAP (America’s food stamps program) by over $40 billion. What better way to disenfranchise the lower-class in the name of bootstrap ideology and a prestige culture that keeps them at the bottom? Brown rapping, “fuck you, you don’t give a fuck about me” makes the ostensibly political “terrorist threats” a tangibly human problem. Governments are built by the people, and when those people stop giving a fuck about other people, institutions decay.

It’s the clearest post-XXX testament to the necessity of Brown and his combination of sociopolitical awareness with the perfection of verse, a vitality that makes today’s release of Old a true rap event, not just a publicity parade.