By Richard Wink
October 8, 2013
I wonder why it is that rappers are getting all introspective again, showing their vulnerabilities, tapping into our one shared condition, that of futile existential human struggle. What happened to carefree low riding party anthems? Why is no one puffing on the kush, and letting it all hang out?
Old is a curious album, written as Danny Brown’s home city Detroit lies in ruin, looking like ‘I Am Legend’ come to life. The album is perhaps is an acknowledgement that this might be Brown’s breakthrough into the serious artist category, I mean this is a guy so full of self-belief that he once predicted his first album would get rave reviews that would lift his career off the ground. Not only that, he pretty much gave his music away for nothing. His intentions are more focussed second time around; Danny Brown intends to escape the slipstream of shooting star hype. If XXX’s first half was a wild cocaine-fuelled night partying to the point of dying like a Rockstar, then Old is the next day’s mournful reflection. Looking back, way back, and going down to the well for inspiration.
Brown’s ability to change lanes and slow it down made XXX an intriguing listen, in many ways Old begins where XXX finished, focussing on the bleak aspects of Brown’s life, the poverty stricken streets he walked along, the drug dependency he endured. Brown realizes that he has to be serious from now on, because if not then a return to his old life awaits. He therefore meditates on this old life, and revisits some of his darkest days, turning these tracks into life lessons. The process of recording must almost have been cathartic. On ‘Wonderbread’ Brown creates a cautionary fairy-tale about a boy running errands for his Momma. The grandiose ‘Torture’ contains the striking imagery of shootings, burnt top lips and dogs licking lady bits, it is post-traumatic stress on record, brutal to listen to.
Old is perhaps less erratic than XXX, it doesn’t feel so Jekyll and Hyde, because there is a recurring theme. The old life was a hard life. What it reflects emphatically are Brown’s influences outside the usual founding fathers. Brown is very fond of grime, and ‘Dubstep’ features Scrufizzer, whose fizzy flow is unfortunately brief, and then there are interesting contributions from Purity Ring and Charli XCX, who soften the tone rather dramatically with their easy on the ear vocal coos.
Brown embraces the dominance of EDM, most of his beats come from the soundscape that clogs radio playlists and washes over our tech rich lives. It doesn’t feel unnatural like Busta Rhymes rapping over Tiesto beats. That’s because Brown is operating at the peak of his powers, the lyrics are a lesson in phenomenology, Brown has lived everything he spits, he’s dealt the drugs, ingested the drugs, and surfed the subsequent highs and lows, there’s no posturing or unsubstantiated boasting, this is as real as it gets.
The weakest tracks on Old are the party tracks like ‘Smokin & Drinkin’ and ‘Dip’, which guiltily sit side by side. It’s unusual for this to be the case, because the Danny Brown we came to know and love could always execute a jam which would make us move and shake. But in comparison to the powerfully moving ‘Clean Up’ they seem trite. However Brown does warn us, and maybe I didn’t heed this message early on, that the old Danny Brown is not here, because he can’t live in the past and recycle old ideas, he’s Eckhart Tolle’s model of a man, freebasing off the power of now.
As a man approaching thirty I could strongly relate to Brown’s conflicted state on XXX, only I interpreted it as Brown saying that the good days were gone, and the decadent days wear harder, to the point that they seem like guilty pleasures. Old is an album that analyses what it is to mature using wonderful observations that have come from a man who’s hustled and worked hard to get to the place where he’s currently at.