Music Reviews

Danny Brown Old

(Fool's Gold) Rating - 9/10

It took me a few goes to take Danny Brown seriously. He’s a gap-toothed, cartoon-voiced dude in skinny jeans, who at first mostly stuck in my head for his raps about cunnilingus (I Will) and self-consciously dodgy gender politics (“Love a feminist bitch / Ooh they get my dick hard”, Outer Space). It didn’t help that some of his recent guest spots descended into self-parody – he lent an apparently sincere 16 bars to an Insane Clown Posse track; and on his verse on A$AP Rocky’s new album he delivered the line “Bitch pussy smell like a penguin”. Not to worry, though – whatever you could have hoped for after Brown’s breakout mixtape XXX, Old delivers. There's that same scope for entertainment, introspection and experimentation, but this time there’s a discernible arc running throughout the album. It is addictively replayable. Growing ever more adventurous with its beats as it progresses, Brown claims that Old is the Kid A to XXX’s OK Computer (!) - you know, if Kid A had a song where the narrator wonders if he can penetrate a woman while she’s doing a handstand.

But that’s to sell Danny Brown short – sure, there are tracks with dumb misogynist hooks, and the sum of the record’s substance abuse would put Pete Doherty into a coma, but you have to take it all with a pinch of salt after hearing Clean Up, where he comes across as an asshole dodging his daughter’s texts during a four-day bender. It's not like Brown is glorifying his irresponsibility; he's writing, for the most part, with sharp self-criticism. The record’s entire first half steadily paints a picture of the things that have shaped Brown into the character he is at the end, and not for a moment does he lose his focus on the narrative he’s building up. He’s as terrific an actor as lyricist; as soon as he bounces in on Wonderbread you can tell he’s a kid again, on his way to buy bread for his mother. But this innocence turns into a kind of panic when he’s attacked by some guys who just want to steal the bread, an incident he recalls on the closing track: “It’s like I learned right there you either sink or swim / And to beat your enemy, you gotta think like them”. Sometimes he wonders if it’s been too much, especially on Torture, a song which presents the paradox that he’s been “desensitised to a lotta things” – domestic abuse, dope fiends, and worse – but he’s not so desensitised it doesn’t keep him up at night.

But around the halfway point the record stops being cerebral and gets absolutely wild. It’s unusual to hear a record with the party-ready songs pushed to the back, but it’s kind of a stroke of genius, full of adrenaline in the part where most long records tend to lag (Old feels like it lasts about half of its 56-minute length). Tracks 13-18 are so filthy you’ll want to take a shower afterwards. It's a futuristic, lurid vision of what trap music could be, and it's simply (I mean this in the best imaginable way) ridiculous. You don’t need to have tried any of the substances or sex positions in any of these songs to enjoy them, because it’s all about the recreating that unhinged feeling of libertinism. Brown gives you absolutely no pauses for breath during this stretch, and it’s hard to say what the most high-octane moment is. Maybe the deranged synth-stab flurry of Dip; maybe A-Trak’s violently heavy banger, Smokin & Drinkin; perhaps Rustie’s ever-crescendoing fervour of Break It (Go). But Handstand might be the pinnacle of what this stretch of Old does so well – it’s music that should be too unstable to work, should absolutely keel over under its unrelenting out-of-time whooshing noises and blasting beats. No other rapper than Brown could really have done this any justice, but his vocals compete with every manic sound effect, and though the track namedrops obvious influences Diplo and TNGHT, it’s hard to imagine a more ideal collaboration than this production by Darq E Freaker.  The stretch closes with the vertiginous rush of Kush Coma (production by SKYWLKR), far more frenzied than the stupefied title suggests, but completely fitting as a climax for this jaw-dropping sequence (which could have made a near-perfect EP in itself).

Drifting in and sounding like a sobering after-party, Old’s demure closer Float On (featuring a Charlie XCX cameo) ties it all together, Brown’s final verse recapitulating pretty much the record’s entire first half, then closing with him wondering how influential his record will be on “this genre of music”. You sense he’s being more honest here than ever, but you’re not sure whether he’s contemplative or merely passive. I keep hearing that Old is a record about Brown’s “split personalities” – which kind of implies a lack of cohesion, an intentional contrast. Sure, that comes off occasionally – look at the back-to-back sequencing of Side B (in which he disavows rapping a “ten year old story” about his drug-selling days) and Dubstep (a song about selling drugs), for instance. But to me it never feels at all unconvincing that for all its contradictions and moral tensions, Old is all about developing the character of one very conflicted dude, and to me that’s its crowning achievement; it’s not his “split personalities” as much as the inner turmoils that fizz around within any complex character, but which you hardly ever hear so convincingly captured on a single record.