‘Old’: an exploration of the two sides of Danny Brown

Danny Brown’s 2011 album “XXX” wasn’t superficial and vulgar for the sake of it…but it would’ve been easy to think that it was if you didn’t listen closely. Brown’s work will probably never fully escape the label of “shock rap” that he’s certainly embraced in the past (in his own words, he’s “anti-clean rap”), but there’s always been sincerity underneath and between the drugs and sexploits. On “Old,” particularly Side A, the sincerity is clearer than ever, if you’re willing to listen.

An acute awareness of the devastated condition of Brown’s hometown, Detroit, pervades as usual. And the same hedonistic die-young attitude that Brown seems to advocate for comes under scrutiny here: “He just wanna smoke some kush / And fuck some hoes at the mall / … / Listening to 2 Chainz, ain’t thinkin’ ‘bout college / I wonder if he knew that 2 Chainz went to college.” Perhaps the most blatant tell that Brown is willing to take his tongue, at least temporarily, out of cheek is the infrequency with which he applies his signature abrasive nasal delivery. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard Brown’s unaffected voice (listen to side B of “XXX” if you’ve forgotten), but now the scales are tilted away from the screechy delivery he’d made his own, only appearing on a few of the “party tracks” on the album.

The (occasionally) tamer lyrics combined with the toned-down delivery is often further paired with a relaxed, and more finessed than ever, production style. Paul White, Oh No, Rustie, and SKYWLKER do the majority of the production here, with some guest spots by A-Trak, Purity Ring’s Corrin Roddick, and others. While a few of these producers have worked with Brown in the past, it’s clear that Brown communicated a shift in tone for a large piece of the new album from the outset. A case in point Paul White’s laidback, sample-based stuttering beat on “Lonely”—it’s tasteful enough to hold its own on a beat tape, but just nuanced enough to stand out and complement the verses.

But despite a heightened (or at least more frequent) sense of maturity, “Old” is a far cry from puritanical. On the one hand, “Clean Up” tells the story of how Brown’s absentee father pushed him into a caretaker role and led him to sell drugs to try to provide. He made money, but at the price of going to jail, and the money would bring things good and bad: “I sent my mom some g’s, but that makes it no better / Cause now I got habits that ain’t getting no better.” The chorus finds Brown repeating “It’s time for me to clean it up / I came too far to fuck it up…” But then the next track kicks in with the opener “Codeine in my cereal, always behind a smokey” and a few tracks later, “Dip” is an ode to MDMA. In “Dip’s” three verses there’s only a hint of remorse: “Molly making her feel good / It’s a feeling she can’t explain / But obvious we got some problems / So bitch let’s kill that pain.”

In fact, “Old” seems to showcase a bit of a divergence between low-voice Brown and nasal Brown. Where the former is transparent, sincere, and thoughtful, the latter is vulgar, thrill-seeking, and transgressive. There’s nothing wrong with that vulgarity—it can be a refreshing change of pace from the hip-hop on the other end of the spectrum that seems to be blowing up lately. But it can certainly get a little old: “Smokin & Drinkin,” for example, doesn’t really seem to add anything to the album except exclaim the Brown enjoys both imbibing alcoholic beverages and partaking in a number of illegal substances. It’s a fact I think the listener had likely already surmised. Additionally, there seems to be an unfortunate correlation here: The “party tracks” with Brown’s affected delivery tend to have the most uninspired production, nearly indistinguishable from a thousand other tracks out there.

But the incoherence between the rough and the soft tracks doesn’t bother me as much as I feared it might—it’s essentially the tension on which the album operates. “XXX” was the same way, but with a bit more of the vulgar than not. “Old” doesn’t claim to have completed the transformation that Brown wishes for in “Clean Up”—instead it shows a man in transition. He’s not cleaned up there, but he’s slowly getting there, and I think the maturation has a positive effect on the music. Side A (“Old”) shows us low-voiced Brown’s conscious and what he aspires to, but Side B (“Dope Song”) reminds us that until he gets there, he’s still gonna Die Like a Rockstar (and do a ton of E). He’s fully aware of the disparity between what he knows what might change his life around and how he’s living right now, and he forces you to confront that contrast.

The album’s about an hour long across 19 tracks and not all of them are good—they’re not even all “okay.” We could’ve definitely used some editing here, particularly on Side B. But there are enough quality tracks here to make that acceptable. “Float On,” “The Return,” “Torture,” “Lonely,” and “Dubstep” stand out to me as real winners. And I can’t help but feel that my inclination towards Side A is simply the result of a stylistic preference for the soft over the hard here. Your mileage may vary.

If you’re willing to see the notion of the two-side binary opposition as in itself one cohesive theme, then this album is going to really impress you. If you tend to listen more to Side A material than B, or vice/versa, you might only be getting half an album of what you want.

Album closer “Float On” (featuring Charli XCX), is a soft cut that closes out the abrasive second half of the album. Brown doesn’t want to leave you thinking that he’s forgot about all the self-reflection he’s done on the top half of the album. Inside the head of the guy telling you how he’ll “grind your bitch” on drugs is another voice fully aware of the cycle he’s trapped in. “Might have a mental breakdown / If it wasn’t for these pills here now” gets complemented and reversed a verse later: “Pray I get old just to hear I been the future / Just to see my influence in this genre of music / And might make it to see somehow / If it wasn’t for these pills here now.” Drugs occupy for Brown the dual role of muse-savior and tormentor-harbinger of inevitable downfall. “Old” gives us a chance to hear both the angel and the demon on Brown’s shoulders.

Check out Brown on tour schedule courtesy of Pitchfork, watch the video for “Dip” below, and stream the album in full over here:

10-11 St. Louis, MO – Chaifetz Arena !
10-13 Boulder, CO – Fool’s Gold Day Off
10-25 Chicago, IL – Aragon *
10-26 Detroit, MI – Masonic Temple *
11-01 Paris, France – Pitchfork Music Festival Paris #
11-08 Pomona, CA – Fox Theatre #
11-09 Ventura, CA – Ventura Theatre #
11-10 Los Angeles, CA – Fool’s Gold Day Off #
11-11 Tempe, AZ – Club Red #
11-12 Las Vegas, NV – 1OAK at the Mirage #
11-22 New York, NY – Terminal 5 $

! with Pretty Lights
* with Griz
# with A-Trak
$ with Sleigh Bells, Doldrums

[Image: Urban Informer]