October 10, 2013

Test Spins: Danny Brown, Old

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By JAMES RAINIS

Danny Brown may have just slipped into the public consciousness following the release of 2011’s XXX, a madcap journey through Brown’s debaucherous and distorted psyche, but he’s no spring chicken. On Old, Brown fixates on his storied past, at once distancing himself from his previous rap incarnations (the heavy J Dilla influence is diminished somewhat) and recounting his troubled childhood in Detroit.

If it sounds like a stereotypical rapper story arc, it isn’t: Danny Brown is far from overcoming his drug-dealing past. In interviews leading up to Old’s release, Brown spoke freely of his own haunting past, of his insomnia and of the drugs he consumes to battle it. That openness carries over to the record. It’s harrowing stuff from a guy everyone initially pinned as a goofball, but his own inventive subversion of the “rapper with a conscience” archetype is the logical realization of Brown’s outsized personality.

For the uninitiated, Danny Brown’s delivery is somewhat schizophrenic. There’s his famous unhinged maniac delivery, ideal for his 2 Chainz-on-codeine (okay, more codeine) bangers (“Dip”); there’s his gruffer, streetwise tell-it-like-it-is delivery (“Lonely”); and then there’s a middle ground that allows Brown to retain his idiosyncratic caterwauling in a less alienating context. This makes sense of the album’s conceptual organization: Side A is more introspective and past-oriented, while Side B sees Brown pumping out the sort of speaker-blowing jams he made his name on.

This lends a truckload of personality to a debut LP that’s relatively light on features. Whether laying out his street rap bona fides on “The Return,” discussing nights spent ignoring his daughter’s texts while downing Xanax bars on “Clean Up” or simply talking about his weed-inspired artistic ambitions (Old is him on his “Radiohead shit”) on “Lonely,” Brown exhibits a unique eye for detail that makes each of his guises convincing. His insecurities aren’t affected like Drake’s are, and his drug dealing credentials feel a lot more realistic (and a hell of a lot less sensationalized) than Jay-Z’s. When he talks about getting jumped while buying Wonder Bread with food stamps or his mom braiding hair to help feed his family, nothing feels glorified or exaggerated. The dreams keeping him awake at night come to life on Old, no matter how unsavory.

Brown’s meticulousness extends to his beat selection. Although the trap and Dilla influences from past releases are still present, there’s a distinctiveness to the production throughout that remains uniquely weird. There’s the ticking IDM beat of the Purity Ring-featuring “25 Bucks” that lends credence to Brown’s hipster-rap label; the stumbling whistle-beat that runs through “Wonderbread” lends a sense of disjointed memory to its bleak sidewalk portraits; and, on “Lonely,” producer Paul White goes low-key and melodic, perfectly accompanying his more placid self-observations. Even the tracks from the banging second half delve into some weird sonic realms, with pitch-shifted zipper sounds (“Handstand”) and a bizarre pitch-shifted choir (“Kush Coma”) finding their way onto the more party-ready joints.

Old is a beast of a record, rife with startling self-reflection and revealing contradictions (the best: on “Side B [Dope Song]” Brown states that “This is my last dope song, not my last dope song,” and then follows it up with a song called “Kush Coma” just seven tracks later). Brown’s tales of distress, past and present, may seem a little water-downed by the album’s bisecting organization, but this just makes his personal conflicts more evident. Danny Brown may be a degenerate, but he’s a self-aware degenerate. Old is not a triumph of hustle over hindrance, but a tale of evil’s perseverance. Though we hope that Brown may one day prevail over his past, we can only hope that it results in an album as troubled and beautiful as this one.

James Rainis is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at jrainis@cornellsun.com.