Saturday, December 7, 2013

Danny Brown: Old (2013)

(Fool's Gold)


The title, Old, doesn't refer to Danny Brown himself, but he does talk about his age (31) an awful lot on his exquisite third album. He's more interested in the conflict of his cultivated privilege as a result of becoming one of the nation's most-watched and inventive rappers versus the version of himself that he remembers from his youth and adolescence, in turn the hard shit he wrote in response and protest. In between accounts of the mortifying sights he saw growing up in inner city Detroit -- junkies being shot, dope being cooked, "family fucked up and hungry" -- he chides those who would demand a return to excess-glorifying youth, to "that old Danny Brown."

Brown himself hasn't changed much, though. He was always an intelligent and thoughtful artist, but he's grown intrigued with these Jekyll-and-Hyde chasms in his performance style and writing. So have we as his audience. His nasal, mocking cadence wasn't easy to take in greater than limited quantities, though even on his earlier records it was hard to name anyone who'd done so much with such an at-first-blush terrible voice. Now, as he grows more deliberately reflective, he crafts a record as haunted by the past -- and as emotionally specific a storytelling achievement -- as Kendrick Lamar's good kid, M.A.A.D city.

But Brown does it his way -- pervasive as the themes are, Old is first and foremost an intensely elated hour of hip hop excitement. Anyone who knows what it sounds like to hear a tremendous artist reaching his or her peak will find evidence of Brown's enthusiasm and restlessness everywhere here. The simplest way of explaining Old's most immediate pleasures is that it comes across as an identifiably independent and invetive creation by virtue of its fusion of two familiar impulses in hip hop -- another cracked mirror: the fall into production innovation and the unstoppable verbosity.

Old takes advantage of a broad but small and, some would say, improbable group of producers including Oh No, SKYWLKR, and most prominently, Paul White, among others. Brown argues that the beats are the thing on Old, and they are indeed consistently surprising and impressive. But if Brown released an album that was all atmospheres that didn't hit hard, he would be his former collaborator Black Milk, or the Roots, or even Kanye West. Instead, Brown barely shuts up across the body of this album. "Side A (Old)" doesn't get more than a few seconds underway before he starts in like he's got no time. What he has to say is too urgent for a break in the flow, even as an introduction.

The impulses converge in a duo of tracks that render trauma out of cute and hellish backing tracks: "Gremlins" and "Wonderland" carry the strange sing-song vibe of novelty songs from the '60s and '70s. They are presented as short, two-minute fantasies but "Wonderland" in particular directly documents street terror and violence with eerie precision. When Brown mentions PTSD elsewhere on the record, it's easy to think of a trick like this as an outgrowth of unspeakable chilhood pain: the need to forget is strong enough that it's all couched in something relentlessly cheery, yet vaguely sinister.

The brigade of producers render this an impressively varied but remarkably cohesive experience. The terrifying loop that drives "Torture" is as sobered and angry as the beautiful "Lonely" is simply despairing and sad. The surrealist pieces "Dubstep" and "Handstand" are crazy, relentless, brave even. The record is completely full of nonstop bangers; you know you're onto something when a cut that would be the windows-down killer of the year -- "Smokin' and Drinkin'" -- isn't even one of the best on the album. Even the lesser songs, like "Red 2 Go," have brilliant hooks. Brown and his producers' sense of history is formidable, too, referencing everything from "Niggas in Paris" and Outkast to Radiohead and Freak Nasty.

Lamar's album probably didn't influence Brown's; the chronology is too tight. But it's hard not to compare the two albums, or to notice that Brown intentionally resists philsophical wisdom in the same exact ways that Lamar embraces it. He sounds like he's still in the heat of all the bullshit and wants to escape more than he actually can -- and he's also playing a character considerably more than Lamar probably is. He's as interested in analysis as in catharsis, which is probably why Old is so artful in even its hedonism. The least clever moment is the dated, terribly misogynistic "Dope Fiend Rental," and even its most egregious error is a dreadful Schoolboy Q verse.

The analogy is clear when you notice almost right away that "Side B (Dope Song)," a wonderfully irritating piece of pop filth, is wholly ironic. It has Brown schmoozing for the mic and Scottish producer Rustie comes on like a very angry Prince circa Lovesexy; the song posits itself as the last anthem of its sort for Brown -- the last celebration of the blasted-out ghetto misery he documents on other parts of the record. "Clean Up" makes good, realistic snap-out-of-it shit that registers as a driving, pounding taunt, and the sweet and wistful "Float On" carries us out like "Real."

The most obvious cracked mirror of Old is the voice. That would be the voice for which we know Brown best, the one he careens outward with on "Side B" and utilizes efficiently on both the most party-ready and stressed-out productions here. But Brown is capable here of sounding like an entirely different person, deep-throated and melancholic, and he comes forth from what seems a different place entirely, as though he's wounded -- or outside looking in upon himself. Besides the thoughtful, sad "The Return," "Lonely" is the essence; it's less self-pitying than its chorus makes it sound, but its chorus is still the point: "So I'm smoking by my lonely / By my goddamn self / I don't need your help, homie / Cause don't nobody really know me." The suffering of an absence of communication and understanding is the buried agony of Old, the reason for multiple voices, maybe the reason for multiple sounds, maybe the reason for announcing that things are changing and then only half-heartedly following through.

Everything that's great about Old -- and there's a lot -- comes together on "25 Bucks," which feels like not only the culmination of Brown's output to date but a summing up of the last decade-plus of hip hop. It's high drama, a stunningly huge gangsta production by Corin Roddick in a vein that was quaint even when T.I. was still making major hits within it. But the delivery is all alienation only slightly broken up by Brown's Das Racist-like levity. Its mood of strangeness and paranoia clashing with culture shock captures our time all too well -- no longer is the dark dance floor safe. It is now a void, into which escape and doom are equally possible. Fun as it is, Old's reality is a fearful one, studying the past to investigate a potentially grim future: "Because the weak don't speak, get left in silence / And when you don't listen, gotta speak with violence."

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