Listening to Old, Detroit rap vanguard Danny Brown’s first proper studio album, brings to mind Hot Soup—his much overlooked and long forgotten debut from 2008 and just how much, in retrospect, of a fundamental part it is in his development and genesis as an artist. With the opening track on Old, Brown fashions himself as something of a mid 90s gangsta classicist; poverty-stricken environs, harsh realities of a drug dealing lifestyle and “by any means necessary” as deeply ingrained coda. It’s the sort of sentiment that permeated his urban life as much as on his debut effort. And with that Old feels more like a reintroduction than a new chapter, an insouciant low five than a jubilant dap—it’s the kind of album an artist would make if they were content to maintain their cramped lane after being dissed by the industry, the type of artist who has lost their ambition to venture outside of their comfort zone, at least for the time being.
Danny Brown, who has been hard at work for nearly a decade, seemed destined for a career breakthrough when, in 2010, he befriended G-Unit henchman Tony Yayo. Brown’s only taste of media exposure at this point in his relatively short career was for the lead single “Yes”, which received mild rotation on local Metro Detroit radio stations, when he was part of the short lived rap group, Rese’vor Dogs. Brown’s G-Unit association led to an ardor discussion of a possible signing to head honcho 50 Cent’s then thriving G-Unit Records. But this speculation came to an abrupt end when it was revealed, by Brown himself, that he and 50 Cent were unable come to terms on an agreement. “It was a real thing. 50 was with it; he just didn’t sign me because of my jeans,” said Brown in an interview regarding 50 Cent’s ultimate decision. “He liked the music, but he didn’t like the way I looked.”
In the end Brown, who favors fitted jeans and a vintage rock-inspired wardrobe, didn’t fit with G-Unit’s then burgeoning hardcore/gangsta image. News of this led to much talk concerning Brown’s flamboyant attire, essentially leaving his music overshadowed and largely unheard by the masses. It’s a pity because Brown’s colorful individuality doesn’t solely rest on his puzzling choice of clothing or stupefying asymmetrical hairstyle—but his uncanny music. Brown spits out extremely tough, raw verses with an impressive touch for delightfully smart puns. XXX, the 2011 album that finally warranted Brown universal critical acclaim, newfound fan admiration, and respect from peers, is also the most convincing at proving that hip-hop has a future—and can definitely exist with those new kind of beats, sounds, and textures while never forcefully attempting to fray too far from the pack. Danny Brown, while differing in style, retains hip-hop’s motifs and simultaneously contributes new, fresh ideas. XXX is too vivid of a portrait displayed by Brown to be forgotten. Named for his gutter mouth and his thirtieth birthday, XXX is undoubtedly an accomplishment and a mission statement; you’ve been bitch slapped by Detroit’s newest hardcore rap liaison.
Like XXX two years before it, Old uses punk rock’s traditionalist efficiency, touching on nineteen different tracks and is gone in less than sixty minutes. But unlike XXX, where the sweeping brevity of each song makes the album appear to pay little heed to regular hooks or established structures (even bluntly satirizing them on “Radio Song”), Old increasingly ingeminates its dependency on the all too conventional. Perhaps the most glaring offender of this is the adrenaline junkie party cut “Dip”, where the literal momentum of Danny Brown seems sapped and we’re hopelessly trapped in what appears to be primarily a birds-eye-view of the album. While it comes as no surprise that one of the longest tracks on the album is also one of the worst, it is to my shock and awe that it’s in the hands of go-to collaborator SKYWLKR—who produced a bulk of the quality material on XXX. In an interview with renowned hip-hop magazine XXL, Brown states that he made XXX with “the aim of getting great reviews” and surmised that if XXX was his OK Computer then he would “have to make [his] Kid A next.” But unfortunately for Brown, merely referencing a groundbreaking work in place of the wild ambitions you have for yours are two wholly separate things. Like they always say: show, don’t tell. And evidently there’s very little on Old that would garner comparison to Radiohead’s adventurous and forward-seeking album.
The production on Old is as equally scatterbrain as it is on XXX, ranging from minor-key, sample-based boom-bap as if Mike WiLL Made It and skinny jeans never happened, trashy electro, ghettotech, and even a brief grime embrace. There are also no producers-for-hire, with a large chunk of production on Old being handled by regulars Paul White and SKYWLKR. Sadly, however, is the noticeably absent psychedelic influence that has been imbued in Brown’s work—a style that exquisitely accompanies his uncensored id; allowing for every subtle shade of his behavior and uncompromising voice and flow to unfurl. And although the production on Old is by no means unflattering to Brown’s many eccentricities (on the contrary, he actually makes it work), it tends to meld into a messy, stuffy hodgepodge of the ever-encroaching beast that is EDM. After a few listens to Old you’d be surprised if Danny Brown doesn’t randomly start stiffly giving the listener some arbitrary dance instructions.
Granted, Old isn’t an entirely bad album, and by sprucely trimming excess fat from the project Brown’s enigmatic charisma keeps a sense of spontaneity—cutting off unexpectedly and never allowing anything to get stale. And fortunately the limited number of features on Old keep it from feeling constraint, with some tracks like “The Return” featuring Midwest kinsman Freddie Gibbs even earning itself a spot on the album’s highlight reel. The pairing of the two on the track couldn’t be more fitting and exciting for a fan of present-day underground hip-hop: both hail from notoriously indigent, crime-ridden locales in America’s breadbasket (Gibbs from Gary, Indiana), rap about similar themes (albeit Gibbs has a sizable edge on the violence), and have a likeminded repudiation of industry rap (Gibbs, previously signed to Interscope, was suddenly dropped without warning). What looks incredible on paper is a blockbuster—with interesting, right on-the-money verses from both parties.
While Brown’s native Detroit might be struggling financially, Brown’s lyrics are still quite rich with content. It’s the kind of special lyricism that’s sustaining, and there are so many transcendent, revealing moments that stand out here: the vivid sepia tone musings of destitute (“In the kitchen, oven open for the heat”), painting wounded personal retreats as compulsory coping mechanisms (“So I’m smokin’ by my lonely, by my goddamn self/ I don’t need your help, homie”), unforeseeable circumstances leading to superseded responsibilities (“Pops left mom when I was only eighteen/ So rightfully that meant I had to be the man of things”), the brutally cyclical and savage nature of the ghetto (“Remember back when mommy sent me for the Wonder Bread/ And niggas jumped me, stomped on my fuckin’ head/ It’s like I learned right then, you either sink or you swim/ And to beat your enemy you gotta think like them”).
Old is a seemingly logical conclusion of a two year morphing period of Danny Brown the character into a drama with several dry jokes; every storyline and angle is played up with routine care and painstaking attention to detail courtesy of Brown’s tripping and swooning rhymes, but there’s gnashing and wailing along the way for gross-out gags as last-ditch comedic relief. But sadly even the best jokes get tired when you hear them a second time. And, really, where is the cleverness this time around? “Remember one time, dawg/ This fiend owed the boss/ Put peanut butter on her pussy/ Let his pits lick it off”? “I will eat on them pajamas/ Stay all on it like piranha/ When it comes to that vagina, baby girl you could be my dinner”? “She licked it off my index/ Before that she been wet/ Now she licking on her best friend/ While they suck me watching sunset”? Yes, those are the actual lyrics that being quoted in this review. And no, they don’t sound better when you hear him rapping them either. At times (read: the aforementioned lyrics) Brown is embarrassingly grasping at straws to retain his “did-he-really-say-that?” provocations that made him so internet buzz-worthy in the first place—rather than tactfully releasing them from his comedy vault. His timing is painfully off the mark here.
A once shoe-in for rap game Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, on Old Danny Brown is sadly more in tune with the loosely based late 80s NES video game version than Robert Louis Stevenson’s Victorian era cautionary classic. Career forecasting is usually a horrid way to express reaction to art, but with Old, there’s little that’s intimate enough to evoke otherwise. Simply put, the pleasure has greatly disintegrated since that first glorious ad-lib on “XXX” entered our ear canal and the music seems to sense it before anyone else. Brown doesn’t sound like he’s around to guide it. And though he gives his best efforts to steer the project in the right direction, it often veers off the road, and sadly not from any of his adverse drug reaction.