Danny Brown, ‘Old’ – Album Review
Danny Brown‘s breakout album ‘XXX’ and the now-streaming ‘Old’ are both split into two halves. While the former started with drug-fueled absurdity before segueing into introspection, ‘Old’ flips the formula. The first half isn’t just introspection though; Brown therapeutically reveals the harsh details of coming up in Detroit before getting wild on the project’s second half.
The new album Brown presents isn’t a two-sides-at-war style. The songs intertwine, and what helps ‘Old’ succeed is how the rapper presents both sides in a relatable and accessible fashion. So instead of an album with two halves, ‘Old’ can be looked at as an expansive body of work. It can also be seen as the best of Danny Brown’s career and 2013.
This album is even more impressive because of the production. Danny Brown did not pick easy beats to put together a 19-track LP. The instrumentals range from the fantasy of ‘Wonderbread,’ to the futuristic debauchery of ‘Smokin & Drinkin,’ to the dizzying synths of ‘Handstand.’ These are good instrumentals too, and Brown did right by the listener in selecting Paul White, SKYWLKR, Oh No and Fool’s Gold founder A-Trak to produce.
Brown navigates the production with dizzying melodies and sometimes anthemic songcraft. When all else fails, the rhymer outright bulldozes the beats with the raw kinetics of his high-pitched yelps.
ScHoolboy Q, Freddie Gibbs, A$AP Rocky and Ab-Soul also join ‘Old,’ but Danny Brown is at the center of the show throughout. ‘Old’ is a journey that deviates between angst and glee, instant gratification and coping mechanisms, and the vivid and surreal. All in under an hour.
1. ‘Side A’
Thus begins the half that ties into the album title. It’s not ‘Old’ because of the fact that he’s 32, but ‘Old’ referring to the old school Danny Brown rhyming from the streets of Detroit. Paul White’s production does a fantastic job of articulating what must have been Danny Brown’s headspace during that time. It’s dark, brooding and carries a sense of paranoia within the clacks of the percussion and the ominous feel of those strings. The multi-entendres come at a dizzying speed as well. “Standin’ on the baseline, Scottie Pippen pivot / Needles in they arms just to keep the lights on,” Brown rhymes.
2. ‘The Return’ Feat. Freddie Gibbs
Paul White is two-for-two with a beat that teeters between its southern influences (it was originally titled ‘Return of the Gangsta II’ after OutKast’s ‘Return of the G’) and psychedelia when a sitar randomly finds its way in. The track is more laid-back than its predecessor, but that doesn’t mean Danny Brown is in this follow-up to the OutKast classic. “Because the weak don’t speak, get left in silence,” Brown raps. “And when you don’t listen, gotta speak with violence.” Freddie Gibbs follows up his verse with a solid set of bars. Hip-hop geeks will notice that ‘The Return’ and ‘Return of the G’ both serve as the second track to their respective albums.
3. ‘25 Bucks’ Feat. Purity Ring
Brown temporarily sidesteps his hardened mentality to delve into his softer points, specifically his mother, who used to get her hair done for $25. He also raps from her perspective as well: “Girlfriend worried ’cause her son’s in a hurry / To see the state pen or a cemetery buried.”
Of course it would get a bit monotonous if Brown spends the entirety of ‘Old’ rapping about this intensely as if he’s in a therapist chair. A multi-dimensional viewpoint helps pull listeners into an artist’s vision easier, and he demonstrates that here. On ‘Wonderbread,’ Brown trades in hardened delivery for fairytale-like splendor as he injects street dreams with sardonic optimism.
Brown sharply throws in some vivid street story details while balancing with some humor. The track’s highlight is when he ends it with, “Listenin’ to 2 Chainz, ain’t thinkin’ bout college / I wonder if he knew that 2 Chainz went to college.” It’s not only funny because it’s true — 2 Chainz actually went to Alabama State University — but it symbolizes a sense of blindness one gets about the outside possibilities when he/she only sees the Detroit corners.
6. ‘Dope Fiend Rental’ Feat. ScHoolboy Q
Surprisingly, ScHoolboy Q and Danny Brown haven’t collaborated that much even though they’re very like-minded rappers. This collaboration should have fans asking for more, though, as this is an immediate headbanger. Mosh pits will be formed and faces will be bruised to this. Although they both are extremely energetic, a good portion of the song’s power lends itself to SKYWLKR’s excellent production.
The first part of the album works not only because it’s reminiscent to struggling times; it’s partially an exorcism as well. Brown attacks his inner demons in resonant fashion over a ghostly Oh No instrumental. “Gunshots outside was sorta like fireworks / We know they ain’t fireworks, its December 21st,” Brown raps. “Cold winter with a kerosene heater on the couch so cold / Can’t take off your sneakers,” he raps.
The effort switches back into psychedelics here as Brown adopts a more stream-of-conscious flow over a dreamy, trance-like production. Just because it’s dreamy doesn’t mean Brown is at peace though. He mournfully touches on the drug-infested setting and personal dilemmas. “When I got a bitch pregnant and I’m stacking for abortion,” he reveals. “And all I really wanted was to give myself a portion / Lit up off the Henny got a n—- self-absorbing.”
9. ‘Clean Up’
‘Clean Up’ follows the same tone as the previous track, and Brown’s delivery is similar. But instead of mournful, the rapper realizes a self-love that’s spiritual and devolves into hedonism in the album’s second half. The realization sets up the high-stepping nature of the next track, which closes out this half of ‘Old.’
10. ‘Red 2 Go’
After overcoming the pains expressed so far, ‘Red 2 Go’ feels like a victory lap, and a very great one to listen to. The hook feels design for crowds to chant along to during Brown’s performances while the staccato nature of his delivery adds a sense of urgency. Brown puts the outcome of his struggles into full focus as he ends this song: “Kept my hopes up but my confidence was low / Now my self-esteem is astral lookin’ at this cash flow.” On that note, we embark on the hectic second half of ‘Old.’
11. ‘Side B (Dope Song)’
The song starts with lush and epic horns, but it carries a sense of lunacy with it, foreshadowing Brown’s performance here. He attacks the track with his trademark high-pitch yelp, which offers rumbling energy before the full-blown explosion within the next couple of tracks.
12. ‘Dubstep’ Feat. Scrufizzer
Brown cavorts over a wobbly synth in one of the catchier songs on the album. It also notably features a ridiculously fast-paced verse from Scrufizzer, who gobsmacks the beat with English slang and technical aggression.
The bass knocks heavier in this bouncy single, which was released in the week before ‘Old’ was made available for streaming. The Herculean sense of confidence reaches hedonistic levels here, but there’s still a glimpse of morality: “But obvious we got some problems / So bitch let’s kill that pain.” ‘Dip’ probably could’ve done without ‘N—-s In Paris’ though.
14. ‘Smokin & Drinkin’
The title pretty much alleviates any sort of potential surprises, but what makes this track replayable is the easy melody Brown works into his high-pitched voice. Also, you can totally picture Brown’s Danny the Cat character from Pitchfork doing the hook.
15. ‘Break It (Go)’
Danny Brown previously said not to expect another ‘XXX’ for this album. ‘XXX’ (which is also an excellent album) revolved around extremes, and bits of that aspect leaks into ‘Old’ in songs like this one. The subject of the song — which is NSFW — is pretty straightforward, but Brown’s delivery definitely isn’t. The rapper sounds like he’s on the edge of completely falling apart as he rhymes, especially as he crams all of those syllables in a blistering rate as he closes his final verse.
Another straightforward raunchy anthem that’s buoyed by Brown’s performance and seemingly natural sense of melody. There’s the fact that the Detroit rhymer once again sounds like he’s on the verge of collapse, like his wobbly tremolo in the lines, “Now she got my d— hard, and I want to f— her in the shower.” It shouldn’t come off artistic, but it does. Darq E Freaker’s cartoonish synths can’t be ignored either.
17. ‘Way Up Here’ Feat. Ab-Soul
This is the come-down after the uppers. The synths bombard the listener as Brown sounds notably strained and threatening here — he’s coming down and trying to kick the guests out. Only Ab-Soul is allowed to stay over.
18. ‘Kush Coma’ Feat. A$AP Rocky & Zelooperz
This is the project’s last hurrah, which is a bit ironic since this was one of the first singles released off ‘Old.’ Over SKYWLKR’s glistening production, Brown slings his 100MPH bridge while A$AP Rocky plays the lazy-eyed, but entertaining sidekick. The fact that this is one of Brown’s last opportunities to turn up seems to have inhibited his sympathy levels: “Dipping in that molly, feel like I’m doing 100 on a Harley / Tell your baby mama sorry, that was one night and please don’t call me.”
19. ‘Float On’ Feat. Charlie XCX
Through all the consumed MDMA pills, hard-earned lessons, and random forms of debauchery, the twinkling album-closing ‘Float On’ puts the prior 18 tracks into perspective. Danny Brown was simply doing what he loves, which is being Danny Brown. ‘Old’ also was an exorcism. An immaculately produced one, but an exorcism nonetheless: “So I was up late breaking day with the gremlins / Music in my heart but my thoughts wouldn’t listen.” There lies the twist: the listener was playing the therapist the whole time.
Listen to Danny Brown’s ‘Kush Coma’ Feat. A$AP Rocky & Zelooperz
Watch Danny Brown’s ‘Dip’ Video