In April of this past year, during a performance in Minneapolis, Danny Brown had oral sex forcibly performed on him. The fellatrix pulled down Brown’s pants and sexually assaulted him mid-bar, and the moment could very well be seen, now, as a microcosm for all things Danny Brown: not so much in the incident’s lasciviousness (well, partly in that; Brown has always made it known that his tongue is equally adroit at clitoral as critical stimulation) but in how a moment of degeneracy begot deeper thoughts on such heavy topics as masculinity, gender roles – particularly those exposed by/cultivated in a boy’s club with such misogynistic tendencies as rap.
What happened to Brown was unequivocally wrong, but his options for responding to it, hemmed in as they were by the byzantine web of manhood and sexuality interwoven between society, his art, and his life, were inevitably limited. All of this came to a rather eloquent head when Brown’s friend and at-the-time tour mate Kitty (then Kitty Pryde) wrote a thought provoking piece on the topic for Noisey; the article is the epitome of Brown’s ability to steer debauchery into deconstructive study, even if he was, in this case, not at fault for said debauched incident.
Brown has often referred to himself as ‘The Hybrid’, a nom de guerre whose aptitude extends beyond the Motor City allusions (a Detroit product, of fresh heart and mind, who is also most assuredly of the city) and strikes at the heart of Brown’s appeal, namely his existence as a creature of both hedonism and intelligence. Brown’s dyadic obsession with depravity and desperation is, at its most potent, a locus for the larger implications inherent when one examines getting fucked up not in the sybaritic context but the escapist, perhaps even the therapeutic; this blending of penis and genius serves to not only make his more wanton lyrics palatable – and this is a loose thing to pin down, anyway, the palatability of graphic imagery, which we are constantly assured, in equal measures, is both upsetting and damaging and liberating and existentially critical, unpopular yet ubituitous – but pushes them past avant garde pornography and something closer to art; he is the rap game Sasha Grey, wielder of vice as vessel for social criticism or, at the very last, extremely well done songs about his preternatural talent for pleasuring women.
Most notable about Brown, aside from the above, is his voice, a voice Jayson Greene once called “a strangled yap … that you could politely call ‘distinctive.’” That voice, which served as the lede and thesis for Greene’s review of XXX, is of primary concern on Old as well. As Greene notes, the utilization of such an “abrasive honk” as your primary means of elocution demands content for which listeners will wilfully and repeatedly allow themselves to be subjected to it, a concern mediated somewhat by the honk’s curious ability to ingratiate itself to the point of un-compromising – if nonplussed – fondness and even desire for it (in the course of writing this review, for example, I will have run through Brown’s first piercing lines on Das Racist’s ‘Power’ in my head roughly 3,174 times) and then completely neutered by the realization that Brown’s word craft and subject matter are more than adequate incentives to take notice even for those whom never surmount this most obvious barrier to appreciation. Old provides expository context and an origin story of sorts for that voice; it is less a honk or strangled yap here than a flagellating cat o’nine tails, the splayed, ragged ends of vocal chords awhip, set about lashing and stabbing with a drug-and-coitus induced fury born out of being backed into a corner and, rather than choosing to fight, getting fucked or fucked up instead.
Brown spends a decent amount of Old free from that corner, and his flow is adjusted accordingly, a kind of puff-cheeked, mouth-full-of-blood oranges purr which he uses to paint vicious street vignettes and lay the framework for the voluptuary tracks to come. It takes a moment to realize that this is the voice of a narrator, one heralding – in ‘Side A (Old)’ and ‘The Return,’ especially – a harder Brown, a gangster and drug dealer whose bluster and viciousness is a facade, particularly in comparison to the more gravelly believable Freddie Gibbs. The obvious discomfort peeking out from behind the AK-47 is not symptomatic of an overreach by Brown, or an ill-fated kowtowing to those whom would rather he shed his more idiosyncratic elements (of which he is astutely aware; see the number of times he refers to himself as a hipster, or some variation thereof) but indeed is the exact opposite, a brush-off by embrace; you wanted Danny the Gangster, now you have Danny the Gangster, and, while he is too talented for the result to be bad, per se – few gangsters would have the rhetorical mastery to slant rhyme “Chrysler,” “spiteful,” and “ice you” – it certainly is different, tacking closer towards the Gibbs school of existential killer than the libertine with a violent adherence to id Brown normally presents to us on the cut.
As Brown strays further from braggadocio and hews the myopic fantasy land of The Streets to the marrow, one can hear his voice cracking, fraying under the stress. It creeps in on ‘The Return’ when the bars become stressed; shows up more noticeably on the Cimmerian lullaby Purity Ring collaboration ’25 Bucks’ with the admission that he is “trapped in the trap and the Devil ain’t forgetin,’” and finally emerges, like a raggedy butterfly, on ‘Wonderbread,’ wherein he recounts getting stomped for a loaf of the titular vittles. Control, and the lower register, returns on ‘Torture,’ a dissociative, syrupy recounting of the horrors he has born witness too, but by the time he hits ‘Side B (Dope Song)’ the whip is unfurled, and with it comes the drugs and sex and dance beats. ‘Side B,’ with its juxtaposition of anthemic opening and spartan, haunted house body, serves as a segue for the rest of the album; Brown’s last dope song, his last recounting of the past, ‘Side B’ signifies the beginning of the second suite of Old, one which gives way to the pleasure soaked retreat one who has suffered what Brown outlined in the first half would avail themselves too. “Obvious we got some problems/ So bitch let’s kill that pain,” Brown raps over the coffin-nail pounding ‘Dip,’ a pointed admission barely audible above the sound and fury.
Beginning in earnest with ‘Dip’ and ‘Smokin & Drinkin’ – which Fool’s Gold label head A-Trak, along with JMIKE, outfits with a guttural rumble and snares that sound like someone shaking a handful of teeth in a dice game – and continuing through the penultimate track, Brown gives us more of the insatiable hunger, both carnal and chemical, that we came to expect from a man who exposed his belief that he would ‘Die Like A Rock Star’ and his willingness to do what other won’t; now, with context, with the understanding that the determined Danny Brown of ‘Scrap or Die,’ tired of playing the steel-banded urchin-cum-pusher of Old‘s opening, is launching desperately, not gleefully, into the sybaritic spiral such heavy topics are wont to engender, to dance and fuck and drug the weight off. By the end, both Brown and the listener seem to collapse from the effort, as he calls back to the wonder bread and the gremlins, assisted in his escape and life by Adderall and the ethereal lilt of Charli XCX which gilds his words.
The popular perception of Danny Brown as a particularly lewd-yet-talented harlequin, one who banters about absurd rap tropes indicative of a healthy respect for the hoary even as he transcends it, fails to take into account his most important asset, the one Old makes abundantly clear; his acute understanding of the environment such bromides are born from. It is there, in that seminal muck, where Brown’s true artistry lies.