Exciting in parts yet ordinary as a whole, the Detroit rapper's new album struggles to capture the complex charm of his earlier releases.
There's much to like about Danny Brown's underdog story: an idiosyncratic and talented rapper long sidelined by low-level hustling and industry machinations finally getting his due after the groundswell of support for his 2011 album 'XXX', released as a free download by Fool's Gold. The year before that he had self-released 'The Hybrid', following a series of MP3 mixtapes, a collaborative project with Black Milk and was featured on an EP with Tony Yayo (the story about a deal between Brown and G-Unit falling through because he wears skinny jeans is well-noted). All of the above showed him as versatile and relentless: equally capable of measured story-telling, audacious boasting and straight street rapping.
Brown has always been candid about both selling and using drugs but the theme became a calling card on 'XXX', handled with a mixture of abandon and maturity that was played on in the title - a reference to both explicit materials and his age in Roman numerals. Spilt into two parts, the first half of the album revelled in drugs and sex with grotesque humour and the second was a stark reflection on his life in his hometown of Detroit. Two years on and that character mould of Danny Brown – ethical but debauched, thoughtful but impulsive, the ego and id laid bare side-by-side – has set, although his extensive touring schedule and frequent guest spots have emphasised the distinctive high-pitched voice, the equivalent to an out of tune horn or a faulty wind instrument, that defines the frantic side of his personality.
His new album 'Old' (also released by Fool's Gold, this time not for free) is bigger than 'XXX' and has more facets than the features he has done in the time between, a simultaneous attempt to build on his professional stature and reaffirm his artistic depth. The title, another multiple meaning, was originally announced as 'ODB', an abbreviation of Old Danny Brown - both the man and the artist - and a tribute to Wu-Tang Clan legend Ol' Dirty Bastard, a rapper Brown is often compared to in passing but is really very different from. Whilst Danny Brown often describes deranged thoughts and actions, he rarely sounds particularly deranged himself and is a precise technician who excels at adapting his style to unconventional, often fast-tempo music (he is a vocal fan of grime, dubstep and drum & bass and his dad was a house DJ) and adding incongruous detail and autobiographical weight to his words.
'Old' starts with the grizzled, regretful Danny Brown and closes with the rabid, hedonistic Danny Brown.
'Old' – which is divided between two sides like a vinyl LP - starts with the grizzled, regretful Danny Brown and closes with the rabid, hedonistic Danny Brown. It flips the structure of 'XXX', which ended by revealing the sadness that underlaid its raucous tracks, and follows a more particular narrative that opens on his drug-dealing past and sees the party songs as genuinely celebratory, both in themselves and as a sign of his rising stock as a live performer and artist. It's not that drug taking – as with anything else - is without consequence in Danny Brown's world but he certainly sees those as better than the ones that come with selling drugs, and he obviously enjoys making music and doing shows more than he does pitching crack – a sentiment explained on the melancholy closing song Float On and exemplified in one of the most jubilant moments of the album, Dip:
"Now all these rappers talk about that molly
Bet a million dollars these niggas ain't dipping
Pure MDMA, put it in a shot, we're talking about the crystal
Been thizzing hard, up all day, rest in peace to Mac Dre
Throw up the T, scrunch on my face, do the thizzle dance up in the place!”
Most of the album's second half is produced by Rustie with a track by Darq E Freaker and another by Fool's Gold co-owner A-Trak with Baltimore producer JMIKE, all electronic maximalism and hyperactive zeal. Brown is fluent with dance music but, bar the almost comic synergy between his yelp and Rustie and Darq E Freaker's highly-pressurized beats and gelatinous synths, the album's “EDM” section feels dull and flat, particularly when compared to the corresponding extrovert phase on 'XXX'. Only the tracks by his long-time collaborator SKYWLKER, Kush Coma, Dubstep and the aforementioned Dip, allowing enough space for the nuance he can bring to even the most direct of tracks.
Brown is fluent with dance music but, bar the almost comic synergy between his yelp and Rustie and Darq E Freaker's highly-pressurized beats and gelatinous synths, the album's “EDM” section feels dull and flat.
SKYWLKER is also the only producer to bridge both parts of 'Old' with Dope Fiend Rental featuring Schoolboy Q, a rapper of the current "indie" circuit who has a similarly sharp sense of duality as Danny Brown and ends the gleeful track about casual sex with the lines “I hope my daughter don't be like this/but I know her Momma know that shit exists”. Paul White makes half of the first ten tracks and his left-field sampling sets a mildly psychedelic and introspective backdrop that suits Brown's meditative, nostalgic mood. Stones Throw Records' Oh No produces some of the strongest songs on the album – the raw, soulful Gremlins, gritty Torture and bubbling, anthemic Red 2 Go - and the Canadian synth-pop duo Purity Ring also feature to add something new, if unremarkable, to a decidedly traditionalist opening.
The first half of the album is more refined and expansive than the second but, ultimately, 'Old' is let down by its structure, which fails to properly link the two halves and weighs the extreme poles of Brown's personality too heavily. It feels staid, a result of poor arrangement and odd pacing which is, in turn, a result of trying to cover too much with this rare second or third attempt at a debut. Danny Brown still does a lot well and 'Old' ticks boxes but it is both overlong and underwhelming. 'Old' will be welcome to many fans both old and new, but casual or more critical listeners may be disappointed that a supposedly unpredictable rapper has made an album that's so very acceptable.
Fool's Gold will release 'Old' on 8th October 2013. It's streaming in full on Spotify from today.