The Return: Danny Brown, Old Review

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XXX, Danny Brown’s 2011 indie rap opus, came out of the gate with a fervent urgency and purpose to let anybody that was willing to listen know that what was about to be heard wasn’t simply a weekly mixtape; the stakes were much higher than that.  The opening lines of XXX go as follows:

Colder than them grits they fed slave
Me to rap is like water to raves
AK’s with bayonets on deck, rep my set
Sorta like Squidward and his clarinet

Everything you need to know about Danny Brown is in those four lines right there.  His grizzled street-savvy, electronic influences, cartoonish metaphors and underlying somberness delivered in that abrasive vocal register are all essential facets to what makes the MC tick.  In 2011, Brown didn’t have time to ease into an album or to start off with a lull because in his mind, the clock was narrowing in on zero.  And if he didn’t make that clear in the opening lines, he dedicated the finale, “30”, to making sure his insatiable need for rap supremacy came across loud and clear.

There was no room for failure in 2011, and his experimental gamble paid dividends earning him the loyal fan-base and national recognition he long deserved.  Now, with the backing of Fool’s Gold, Danny Brown has released his proper full length debut and instead of resting on his laurels, he’s decided to push the boundaries even further resulting in one of the most rewarding albums of the year.  What it lacks in urgency, it compensates for with a meticulous attention to song crafting and storytelling.  

Given the Double LP format Brown decided to go with here, the SummerintheWinter contributors (all two of us) have decided to split the album into two mini reviews with the final score being all inclusive.  I’ll cover Side A while J.Mon will cover Side B.  Enjoy. ~Dylan

Side A:

The album’s title, Old, has an obvious tongue-in-cheek angle to it but there is also a sobering seriousness about it as well.  The duality of the title of course being a reference to both the Detroit MC’s age, at 32 he’s considered an elder statesmen, and his old reputation as a gritty street hustler with a knack for obliterating all things boom-bap.  Brown actually revisited his ‘old’ persona on XXX as well, primarily on the back half of the tape.  But where these tracks found Brown in a reflective, restrained demeanor guiding listeners on a tour of his old block, Old finds Brown exorcising demons in brutal, muckraking fashion to show nostalgists why he has no intention to resurrect Old Danny Brown.

The back half of XXX, though equipped with its own set of standouts, suffered from a loss of momentum.  After catching lightning in a bottle with the experimental first half, the second half felt as though Brown was pandering to the listeners he may have alienated, instead of testing the limitations of his new found persona.  Thus, the 2nd half felt like the sunglasses and Advil inducing hangover to the 1st half’s MDMA fueled bliss.  Here, the tables are turned in a conscious artistic decision to ensure that the lows are conveyed properly so that the highs are substantiated.

The production on Side A is absolutely sublime, mostly due to the arrangements and layering of each track.  Paul White, UK hip-hop producer, is the executive producer for the project and his vision is the tether that holds this portion of music together.  His production is arranged in a manner that emphasizes texture and instrumentation in a way that can barely be defined as hip-hop.  The beats here are done in a collagist manner meant to emphasize musicality by melding sounds that have no business sharing space together.  “The Return” samples “The Six Million Dollar Man”, hypnotizing strings that sound Eastern Hemispheric, woodwind instruments, and a modern synth groove all without feeling cluttered or overpowering.  The closing trifecta of “Lonely”, “Clean Up”, and “Red 2 Go” follow similar paths as haunting vocal samples are melded with guitar plucks, harp strings, and anything else that can fit seamlessly within the confines of a three minute track.  It is very similar to the previous efforts of Jai Paul in its execution of left-field sampling.

This departure in conventional production is what differentiates these Detroit tales from previous iterations.  The production here is truly beautiful and futurist in its execution, but the storytelling lets listeners know why Brown is in no hurry to channel anything from his horrific past.  In the world of Old, little kids are robbed on their way to get Wonder Bread, dope fiends in debt are punished with hungry pits and peanut butter in the most private of places, domestic violence is inescapable, and pipe dreams only refer to the next score.  It is an absolutely brutal world that Brown managed to escape from, yet counterintuitive fans demand he return to.  But not only does he revisit his past, he paints it in harrowing detail with resonant lyrics and inclusive storytelling.

Side A sees Brown covering a wide spectrum of sounds and ideas to keep the weighty content fresh and slightly fun giving listeners a chance to breathe while reflecting on the subject’s meaning.  “Wonderbread” is a nursery rhyme gone sour as Brown tells his story over enchanting flutes.  “25 Bucks” contrasts the familiar dollar chasing mantra with the signature electronic-trap Purity Ring aesthetic.   “The Return” finds Brown channeling his former persona while the one and only Gangsta Gibbs plays the OG that never left, welcoming him back with open arms.  It’s this type of left field approach and unbridled creativity with respect to routine subject matter that makes Side A such a revelation.

During his press run, Danny ensured that this effort would be a much more serious endeavor and with such heavy subject matter, it’s hard to imagine it turning out any other way.  All in all, Brown turns in a performance for the ages, solidifying his spot at the rappers’ lunch table for years and years to come.  Oh…and there’s still another 10 tracks left to be discussed.  Now onto Side B.

Side B:

Before you listen, think of the second half of Old as an unrelenting psychedelic acid trip of a party that comes to a screeching, but oh-so-pleasant halt by the album’s closer. Once you have that pictured then we’re set to go.

Whereas Side A functioned as a recollective picture of Danny’s previous life and activities in the hood (specifically Detroit), Side B explicitly details Danny’s newer lifestyle. This way of life is filled with drugs, sex and all of the other proclivities usually associated with an ascending rockstar. In the song “Dip”, Danny specifically warns us, “Don’t let me into my zone.” But unlike Kanye’s original meaning, we get the sense that the place Danny is referencing is much darker and more sinister. He is not only further pushing his story with his lyrics, but simultaneously exorcising the demons that would literally be the death of him.

Side B starts with “Dope Song”, a menacing opener dictated by DB’s wild but purposeful flow and the hard beating of a stereo-destroying bass. “31-years-old so I done been through all that dizzert/Came up off the porch straight serving off the cizzurb,” Brown says while switching between two distinct voices. The song further devolves into the tale of “Crackhead” Lisa and by the track’s end, we realize that our protagonist means serious business.

The party officially begins with “Dubstep”, an entertaining offering filled with light elements of its namesake, but things don’t get into a full-on frenzied swing until the aforementioned “Dip” comes on. Danny’s vivid descriptions are on full display (“Molly make her feel good, it’s a feeling she can’t explain/But obviously we got some problems, so bitch let’s kill that pain”). It should be noted here how fluent and cohesive Side B is. But for as fun as “Dip” sounds, it’s only the lit match that starts the blazing wildfire.

Enter “Smokin & Drinkin”, “Break It” (my favorite as of late), and “Handstand“, a back-to-back-to-back trifecta that makes you want to quit your job, do a bevy of illegal activities, and run around half-naked in the streets. Ok, that may be a bit much, but each song excitingly and adeptly builds on the previous one, with slight yet distinct variations on harmonics and instrumentation. For example, “Break It” has weirdly distorted, outer-space like synths that are placed on top of a deep bass and intense drumline as Brown venomously reels off line after line like “Exhale kush when I breath on the mic/Everytime I rock like a diamond heist.” Dylan noted earlier the album’s willingness to experiment, and rappers who are looking to incorporate heavy electronic/dubstep elements to their music going forward should take notes from a master. From now on, it will be hard to enter a club and not instinctively yell out commands like A) “make that booty go” *claps two times* and B) “shake that ass for a hipster…”. Just kidding.

The Rustie-produced “Way Up Here” is without a doubt a blood-pumping, headbanger of a song (He also produced “Side B” and “Break It”). And the penultimate “Kush Koma” is a trippy adrenaline rush that’s one of the best songs to come out this year. But one of the highlights of the entire album is its closer “Float On”. Returning the favor for Danny appearing on her remix of “What I Like“, Essex native Charli XCX lends her dreamy vocals to the very low-key track. What sound like church organs are the backbone for the song as Danny dials back his wild-eyed, frenetic flow to one that is familiar, mature, and relaxed. He sounds almost as if he’s tired, like the party has stopped and now he’s simply trying to survive and live out his life peacefully. “So I’m trapped in the beat, stuck on every line/Nothing else matters except my next rhyme,” Brown wearily states. Charli’s voice soothingly comes in like an angel’s, acting as a comfort to the Detroit emcee. “Float on” they sing in unison as the bridge appears, and listeners can do nothing but let their minds drift off into an utterly tranquil state.

Overall, Danny Brown’s Old is an impressively harrowing concept album. Brown puts himself out there in a way that is simultaneously vulnerable and empowered, and listeners will definitely relate to at least one side of the album if not both. What the new “ODB” has managed to do is create a project that is both fun and wearily introspective as Old, for better or worse, will be remembered for a very long time.

Final Verdict: 9

+ Two unique albums for the price of one

+ “The Return”, “25 Bucks”, “Wonderbread”, “Dip”, “Break it (Go)”, “Handstand”, “Float On”

“Gremlins”

+/- Danny always raps with a purpose, but his changing of flow styles is not always understood.

+/- 19 tracks is still a lot to deal with.