[9 October 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
“They want that old Danny Brown.”
It’s easy to hang much of what happens on Old on this complaint, spit by Brown on the album’s opening track, “Side A (Old)”. But perhaps there’s a better one halfway through the record on “Lonely”, when Brown—in a much wearier voice—admits “don’t nobody really know me.” Both admissions are curious for a rapper that thrives as much on unique personality as Danny Brown does. His frenetic, oddball, on-the-edge-of-chaos album XXX put him in the spotlight as much for his rapping skill as for his debauched lyrics and lunatic vocals.
Especially in the first half, Danny Brown tries to move away from that version of himself, that “old Danny Brown.” “Side A (Old)” is a desperate, wrenching tale of poverty and need, a song—from the oven open to heat the apartment to the Ramen noodles cooking on the stove—detailed enough to be both personal and universal at the same time. “The Return” shifts between a wish for family (i.e. to feed his daughter) and another old version of Danny Brown, the one that settles disputes (like interrupting that meal) with violence. As if he’s the smooth-talking devil on Brown’s shoulder, Freddie Gibbs slides in on the second verse and drives home that chilling logic.
These songs and several others early on—like “Lonely” and “Torture”—deal in grimy, not-quite-old-school beats. These are straight-ahead rap bangers, and Danny Brown shifts his vocals to something more menacing than usual. His voice, not the nasally, id-soaked bleat we expect, is instead a low growl, something as sure of itself as it is hungry, as powerful as it is revealing. In these songs we do move past a one-dimensional reading of Brown as oversexed and overstimulated and into if not a “new” Danny Brown than a more complex version of the rapper we knew.
That’s not to say that Danny Brown doesn’t keep us guessing in other, more eccentric ways. The excellent “25 Bucks” is as grimy as these other tracks, but also coated in an electro-pop sheen, assisted by a chorus performed by Purity Ring. “Wonderbread” is a skittering electronic romp, an off-kilter, underbelly version of a children’s story, complete with Brown’s high-register and a tripping, flute-tinged beat. The second half of the record is punctuated by these strange moments too, from the synths and sizzling atmospherics of “Dubstep” and the strange glitched-out “Way Up Here”, that Brown and Ab-Soul somehow handle despite rapping over what seems like an unrappable beat.
These turns aren’t the same we’ve heard before, but they aren’t exactly new either. It’s also telling that we don’t move directly from, say, the more basic beats of “The Return” to the eccentricities of “Way Up Here.” In fact, if you’re trying to track where this new Brown is going, Old is likely to leave you with more questions than answers. The album does lean on more personal stories early and intriguing shifts in rap flow all the way through, but then its tangents, from the more obvious (“Wonderbread”) to the more subtle (the start-stop oddity “Dope Fiend Rental”), keep us from reading this as an album of purely self-definition.
But if, song to song, Old seems less predictable than XXX, there’s still one curious realization that rises to the surface about Danny Brown over the course of the record. For all his willful strangeness of personality, and for all the different shapes these songs take, perhaps what’s most striking here is Brown’s deep, consistent sense of song structure and pop sensibility. Standouts like “Dip” and “25 Bucks”, among others, rely on a verse-pre-chorus-chorus structure that owes itself as much to pop music as it does to wrap. In other words, even if the songs seem hardened on the outside, there’s still a sweet, soft center to much of this, a much more conservative approach to structure than you might expect from the wild-haired rapper always bounding across festival stages.
And for all the stepping out into new thematic and sonic territory—even if he does fit them into recognizable shapes—Danny Brown still does end up giving us that “old Danny Brown” or at least an “old Danny Brown”. The last third of the album settles into the old debauched, electronic stompers that will play nicely to crowds. This is the version of Danny Brown that knows where his bread is buttered, that knows he needs good stage material to keep making his money. It is, in theory, another fascinating angle to a guy who—as we learn on Old—has enough sides to sit in for a Dungeons & Dragons die. And he continues his usual fascinations—with drugs and sex, especially performing oral sex on women. If this particular sexual focus turns stereotypical rap politics on their ear, it doesn’t exactly elevate them either. But, then again, you can feel Danny Brown flexing his rap muscles more than anything here, challenging himself to find new ways to describe the same things over and over. And, even if the returns are modest, he does succeed.
But as a part of the question about who Danny Brown is on Old, the interest in this last section is purely theoretical. It doesn’t help that “Kush Coma”, for instance, has been kicking around for a while, or that they settle into the same thumping beats that eschew the interesting flourishes and basslines that drive the rest of the record. We can see this as the businessman part of Danny Brown’s shifting personality, and it is, but he loses the fervor of exploration that the rest of the record has here. It’s interesting to see him tapping into what he thinks his audience wants, but he’s also just caving to the exact thing he may or may not have been complaining about on “Side A (Old)”.
And so the presented structure of the record—with opener “Side A (Old)” and halfway marker “Side B (Dope Song)”—as a two-headed beast is a bit of a red herring. The protean image we get of Brown, instead, is at its best when the complications of identity clash with complications of sound and fit into fascinatingly confining structures. Despite his crowd-pleasing at the end—which cuts short what is an otherwise excellent album—he does come back to dreamy textures on closer “Float On”, a final fascinating, even exhausted twist in Brown’s voice. “Might have a mental breakdown if it wasn’t for these pills here now,” he groans, and you feel the fatigue of this album, of trying to be an artist, of trying to please others and grow yourself. It’s a convincing close, one that leaves behind the pulsing volume of “Dip” or “Smokin & Drinkin”, but somehow—in its quiet—connects with a more genuine energy. It’s not old Danny Brown. It’s Danny Brown feeling old, which isn’t totally what this album is about. Unless it is.