Danny Brown’s latest album, Old, answers a simple question that too much hip-hop music ignores: why? It’s easy for rappers to talk about their old drug dealer lifestyles, but it’s very rare for anyone to explain why they did that without resorting to simplistic, clichéd answers. This lack of insight often makes the music feel like little more than a celebration of negativity. So while Old deals with very negative topics, Danny’s realistic approach pulls the music above simple glorification, into something much more interesting.
In format and style, Old is Danny’s attempt to please two different crowds of fans. Some miss his drug dealer persona, while others prefer the new Danny who mostly parties. So he gave each group a half of the album. Surprisingly, both halves are good despite their great differences. Whether being introspective, menacing, or a drug-addled maniac, his dynamic voice and excellent beat choices rarely fail to entertain. The worst moments are when featured artists like A$AP Rocky and Schoolboy Q fail to live up to the high standard that Danny sets on his solo songs, but Freddie Gibbs is great on his guest verse. My biggest complaint is that the party half has plenty of high points but can get a bit monotonous.
While the album was made for two audiences, only enjoying the half of the album that appeals most would make it harder to appreciate what I find most compelling about Old. Danny isn’t just performing fan-service, he’s explaining his life, from childhood to present. Songs like Wonderbread, 25 Bucks, and Torture (first verse) give us a glimpse into Danny’s early life, where simple trips to the store can include getting jumped for pocket change and visions of violence and drugs are inescapable. There’s room for insight because each idea is given a whole song. Where another rapper might just say “I was a poor kid”, Danny spends the whole of 25 Bucks on his mother who provided for her family by braiding people’s hair.
These songs give the drug dealer Danny, exhibited in songs like Old, Gremlins, Dopefiend Rental, and The Return, a reason for existing. Whether you agree or not, you understand his decision to go down that road. Eventually Danny decides to rap instead of selling drugs, and tells us why on songs with obvious topic to title correlation: Torture (second verse), Lonely, and Clean Up.
Red 2 Go ends the first “side” of Old, solidifying the transition from drug dealer to rapper. Then Dope Song starts, sounding much more like a current Danny Brown song. But he’s rapping about selling drugs, reflecting his earlier style of music. What makes this song different from those is that he says this is his last song about selling drugs, because he refuses to be a rapper who tells 10-year old stories about his criminal past. Dubstep contradicts this notion by being about selling weed, but I’ll allow Danny this misstep. Maybe deciding to not sell drugs anymore wasn’t a simple process: maybe he had to step down from hard drugs to weed then eventually nothing. Anyway, this is the last drug dealer song.
Judging from the rest of the album, Danny the rapper leads a life that is all about excess in the form of substance abuse and sex. But even here, Danny is a little more insightful than most. He raps on Smokin and Drinkin
stress party, get away, hope these problems just go away/
right there in my face, I’ll ignore it everyday/
This stress is more than a vague idea because he already described it on songs like Torture. It’s further described on Float On, the final song on Old. Its focus on introspection doesn’t really fit Side B, but chronologically it’s placed perfectly. After the earlier highs, Danny comes down and reflects with lines like “a cup of lean for me to sleep see I be goin’ through thangs” that show that this drug usage isn’t just about having fun but also coping. The stress of survival as a drug dealer has given way to the pressure of trying to continuously improve as a musician.
While Danny Brown may have seemed to the casual listener, myself included, as a simple party rapper with a weird sense of style, Old proves him to be a true artist. Although it’s split into halves, its real worth is clear when viewing it as a whole work. Each half explains half of his life, and together they make a biography that doesn’t just describe his actions, but also why he made these decisions. Besides being plain old good music, its depth and imagery allow it to tower above most other examples of “real hip-hop”.