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Album review: ‘Old’ by Danny Brown

Singles to Download: “The Return,” “25 Bucks,” “Handstand”
For fans of: Chance the Rapper, A$AP Ferg, Action Bronson, ScHoolboy Q

Danny Brown’s a weird dude. Physically, his asymmetrical quasi-mohawk comb-over and missing tooth paint him as something of a deranged hipster clown, and quite frankly, that’s not all that far from the truth. His breakout mixtape, 2011’s “XXX,” showcased the high-pitched squawk that passes for his voice and his equally off-kilter flow, asserting him as one of hip-hop’s most idiosyncratic voices. It didn’t hurt that his lyrics inexplicably balanced countless, often disgusting references to oral sex with sobering narratives about his troubled childhood. In most hands, this would be a recipe for disaster, but Brown’s unwavering conviction and lyrical prowess turned “XXX” into one of the most memorable mixtapes in recent hip-hop history. Though “Old,” Brown’s commercial debut, is not as dissonant as “XXX,” it finds Brown expanding his sonic and stylistic palette in surprising and ultimately satisfying ways.

As if hell-bent on proving there’s no beat he can’t master, Brown enlists an impossibly diverse roster of collaborators. From Rustie’s raucous trap beats to Purity Ring’s ethereal abstractions, “Old” functions as a comprehensive survey of modern electronic music. At times, the album feels as if it’s on the verge of splintering into a thousand pieces, held together only by Brown’s vocal malleability.

On the album’s more somber first half, Brown often abandons his wild-man yelp in favor of a more sober, restrained delivery. His dead-eyed resignation makes his tales of poverty and chemical dependency all the more poignant. Didacticism is notoriously difficult to avoid when recounting poverty, but Brown is able to dodge this trap through his knack for vivid show-don’t-tell detail. Like fellow hip-hop golden boy Kendrick Lamar, he can communicate both internal and external turmoil without resorting to tired cliches. Lines like “Won’t live for anything, but might die for nothin’” and “Seen another dope fiend beat another with a hammer” hit you in the gut with their frankness.

But it’s not all street-level reporting and personal anecdotes. “Old”’s second half loosens up considerably, allowing Brown to unleash the maniacal side that endeared him to hip-hop heads and hipsters alike. Bolstered by full-throttle beats from the likes of A-Trak and Darq E Freaker, Brown spits out jagged bursts of licentious wordplay. At his most frenzied, Brown functions as a lyrical Jackson Pollock, splattering his words every which way until they congeal into a sticky mass of unrepentant hedonism. It’s exhilarating stuff for those who can handle his peculiar timbre.

On “XXX,” Brown proved himself to be one of hip-hop’s most wildly unpredictable personalities. One track, he’d be spewing vile sexual metaphors, and the next, he’d detail the horrors of drug addiction. “Old” finds Brown embracing this duality, refining each side of his delirious brain, all while testing just about every vocal delivery one could imagine. Though hip-hop is becoming weirder by the day, Danny Brown’s still one step ahead of the pack, a pied piper for rap’s class clowns.

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  • Tesfaye says:

    Can’t disagree with any of this! Personally speaking, I love the album. That wildman voice will turn off some (my wife for starters), but I have no problem with it. Am I the only one that is reminded of Sadat X (especially early Sadat X) when hearing Brown’s voice?

    Anyhow, nice review and thanks for the new word! At least I don’t remember ever reading the word Didacticism before.

    -Tesfaye

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Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878