Danny Brown deals in extremes. This fact was eminently clear on the Detroit rapper’s 2011 breakthrough album, XXX, a record that alternated between manic, mind-numbingly hyped-up, incredibly graphic tales of sexual debauchery and drug use, and reflections on the effects of crime, poverty, and drug abuse on the individual, the family, and society at large. At least to this writer, Danny’s prior work was endlessly fascinating because of the expertly musical manner in which he navigated these two seemingly contradictory modes of expression, masterfully juxtaposing them if not necessarily mining their depths. On his new album, Old, Danny certainly continues to vacillate between these two tonal spheres, but he also explores and deconstructs a richer, even deeper set of dichotomies — not just between #turnt #up and chilled out, but between past and present, between thought and action, between life and art — to a wonderfully rewarding result.
Old, just like its predecessor, is structured around two distinct sides, with one half focusing on Danny’s wildest antics and the other rooted in a more solemn sort of contemplation. On XXX, the more introspective half came after the intense partying, implicitly suggesting a causal relationship between the two, as if to say: first, Danny Brown goes all in, and then, once removed from the party, he sits back and thinks about what it all means. But on Old, that order is reversed, a simple detail that ends up unlocking the album to a whole variety of new resonances. The record’s first song, “Side A (Old),” begins by detailing the hardships that Danny has faced and overcome in his life. In its chorus and near of the end of its last verse, however, a fascinating lyrical conceit is developed: the conflation of the product that Danny used to sell as a dealer on Detroit streets with the rap verses that he now sells to his audience. Here, we see Danny’s first attempt to decipher his current successes and struggles through the lens of his past, one of the central thematic pursuits of the album as a whole.
One track that’s particularly representative of the record’s more ruminative first half is “Wonderbread,” a song similarly tied to troubling past experiences. Danny turns the story of a mundane, everyday trip to get a loaf of bread into a disturbing, surreal voyage through the poverty and drug abuse that cripple the streets of his hometown; in order to simply go to the store and back, young Danny has to confront dope fiends running through the alleys, junkies begging on the streets, and a store owner who looks at Danny and immediately expects him to steal something. And in a tragic twist at the end of the song, we learn that, after finally obtaining the object of his quest, “Some niggas stomped on my head/ All because they wanted the bread.” It’s a fascinating, undeniably affecting way to treat this gritty subject material, and — though some of the other tracks on the first half don’t quite achieve the same level of nuance and subtlety — it largely embodies the lyrical creativity that Danny brings to the table on song after song here. Meanwhile, Paul White’s production only amplifies the efficacy of the track, mirroring the lyrical content with a disorienting, psychedelic beat (though neither as disorienting nor as psychedelic as his production on the questionably omitted “ODB”).
That latter quality is something that the entirety of Old possesses: every constituent element of the music, from the production to the lyrical content to Danny’s vocal inflection, seems attuned to each other, in turn assuring that every moment feels focused, that every musical gesture rings out as purposeful and substantial. Surely, the aforementioned structure of the album lends a sense of cohesion to the project on the most macro level. But even the tiniest of details reveal the craft that went into this thing. Take, for example, the way that Rustie expertly places two claps immediately after Danny leaves the line “And make that booty go…” hanging during the hard-hitting “Break It (Go).” The song certainly doesn’t possess terrible lyrical depth — it’s one of the tracks on the second half of the album that, as the rapper readily admitted in a recent interview, are specifically tailored to amp up his already ludicrously amped-up live shows — but the way that those two staccato claps punctuate and conclude Danny’s unfinished line elevates the farcically extreme tune from merely a tight live banger to a powerful and strikingly holistic musical statement.
Then, on the very next song, “Handstand,” a weird lyrical tic reveals another dichotomy that pervades much of Danny’s music and, indeed, his persona in general: during the chorus, Danny alternates between saying “Shake that ass for a gangsta nigga” and “Shake that ass for a hipster nigga.” This lyrical oscillation forces the listener to question why it is — and what, in the end, it might mean — that Danny has been so enthusiastically embraced by the (ahem) hipster community. Is it because his musical vision is simply too “weird” to find a home elsewhere? Perhaps it has something to do with his idiosyncrasies, but that explanation ultimately seems somewhat reductive. In any case, these are important issues for any lover of Mr. Brown’s music to consider, and the rapper is able to successfully conjure such inquiries with the exceedingly subtle swapping of a single word.
Admittedly, not every song on Old functions at as high of a level. On the first half, the heavy-handed “Torture” addresses similar issues as “Wonderbread” and “Clean Up,” but with much less grace and creativity than either. And on the second half, there are a few songs that suffer from simply going too hard without offering anything else for the ear or mind to chew on — I’m sure “Smokin’ and Drinkin’” would be fun to vibe to during a concert, but it’s not exactly the Danny song I’d most immediately gravitate to while listening on headphones at home. Nonetheless, Old consistently offers up words and music that, while certainly extremely enjoyable on the most basic aural terms, also holds up to deeper dissection and analysis. It must be said again: Danny Brown deals in extremes, in dualities — between being utterly hyped up and acting more subdued, between channeling his inner hipster and acting like a gangster, and even, as with many of the most salient moments, between dwelling on the past and living in the present — and while there’s certainly something thrilling about the wild, back-and-forth rollercoaster ride of listening to a Danny Brown album, in the end the grandest triumphs of Danny’s work are the myriad revelations gained from how the seemingly contradictory elements of these dualities interact with one another. It’s not the high, nor is it the low; it’s not Danny’s troubled past, nor is it his wild present; no, it’s the rich dialogue between these inherent extremities in Danny’s music that creates such a valuable experience for the listener.