Oct 11, 2013

Music Review: "Old" by Danny Brown

By Ian Cory

For the majority of my life as a fan of music it was a given that all of my favorite musicians would be at least 10 years older than me. As a teenager I could write off any successful artists in my age bracket as being aberrations, the results of freakish natural talent or being groomed for the spotlight since birth. In the last few years this script has been flipped, and I’ve come to assume that any up and coming artist is my age or younger. As someone who hangs out with a lot of musicians, and as a musician myself, this fact has been the cause of a lot of consternation in my peer group. Its one of the great clich├ęs of our time that an artist will release their best work in their youth and then quickly fade into a shadow of their former glory. We perceive youth to be an artist’s greatest weapon, and that when they lose it they tumble back down into the boring and ordinary plane that the rest of the world inhabits. In the last few years no genre has worked harder to dispel this notion than Hip-Hop. In the mainstream, Kanye West has only gotten more artistically daring as he’s aged, and has also helped pushed fellow 30-somethings 2 Chainz and Pusha T into the spotlight (or back into it in Pusha’s case.) And down in the underground, El-P and Killer Mike, both well-established veterans at this point, released this year’s most boundlessly energetic album. But no one wears their age more proudly than Danny Brown.
Danny Brown only explicitly mentions his age once on Old, but his faded youth hangs over the entire album. The title refers both to his age in comparison to his competition as well as his fan’s requests that he bring “the old Danny Brown back.” It is clear that Brown is sick of this demand, and he spends the album’s first half showing you why his past is something he never wants to revisit. Foregoing the typical hyperactive nasal yelp that he’s usually associated with, Danny Brown spends Side A in a defeated mumble, only switching to his usual childlike tone in “Wonderbread” a song that is explicitly sung from his younger self about how his childhood was taken away from him by the horrors of ghetto life. His childhood is also the subject of album highlight “Torture” where Danny recreates the hellish landscape of Detroit over mournful choir samples and relentless hi-hats. The production remains dark and moody for the full first half, taking the boom bap sound of Brown’s youth and breaking it down even further -- the only exception being “25 Bucks” which pairs some of Brown’s motor mouth with Purity Ring’s futuristic melancholy. The bleakness of Side A reaches its breaking point at “Clean Up” where Danny Brown jumps to the present to show how drug use and endless partying hasn’t made his life any better.
After putting the listener through the hell of his past, Danny Brown uses Side B to catch them up on the Dionysian excess of his present. Side B functions like Brown’s star-making mixtape XXX in miniature, piling on drug-fueled party anthems until the whole record collapses into a cold and sober reflective closing track. Here Danny Brown makes full use of his batshit insane upper register, picking up the pace of his flow into a delirious blur. The contrast from the more socially conscious first act is startling and it’s supposed to be. As listeners we’re put into Danny Brown’s shoes, and after escaping the hood with him spending a few nights in a molly/weed/booze induced haze feels justified. This switch in style also reveals how versatile Danny Brown truly is. While he’s been pigeonholed as a goofy party rapper, he feels just as natural as a storyteller or a vicious battler. When his younger contemporaries Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul show up for guest verses, Brown is able to match them step for step, but he’s just as comfortable sounding old and tired on his duet with Charli XCX.
The fact that Old is, technically speaking, Danny Brown’s debut album is mind-boggling, but it makes more sense when you consider the age difference between Brown and the rest of the rappers in his league. The ten years between him and his competitors has sharpened his focus and determination. Where a younger rapper would have extended a song into a suite, Brown cuts it down to its bare essentials, sometimes using a hook only once, and rarely pushing a track past three minutes. This same sense of economy is present in his lyrics. Rarely do Brown’s rhymes sound like schemes, every word feels like it’s a result of the one before it. Like 2 Chainz (who gets name dropped in one of the albums most clever moments) Brown doesn’t bother with complex flows and instead focuses on keeping his lyrics direct and instantly quotable. Old proves that Danny Brown is more than a wacky haircut and a missing tooth; he’s one of the best rappers alive.

Grade: A-/B+

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