Because of rap’s obsession with realism, albums by recently famous artists tend to be very self-conscious. Aware of their wider audiences (and subsequently those audiences’ expectations), artists often reflect on fame (the present) rather than the life before it (the past) . Inevitably, their initial fans harass them for changing focus, accusing them of losing their integrity or worse: selling-out. On Old, Danny Brown shows us that his problem isn’t quite selling out, but buying in. In a world where “turning up” seems to be the only way to enjoy rap music or any music live, Danny Brown is a perfect fit. Not only can he energize a crowd that wants more than booms and baps, he can do it well. Even better, he enjoys doing it. But the question is should he? The party-circuit is lucrative and exhilarating, but it comes at a cost.
What’s brilliant about Old is that Danny Brown frames this cost in terms of old fans/expectations vs news fans/expectations: Side A and Side B, respectively. Yet if you pay attention the cost, the battle, is actually internal. On the Rustie-produced “Dope Song,” a track that has the atmosphere of an unexpected boss fight in a Final Fantasy game, Danny Brown aggressively asserts that he’s done rapping about his experiences in the drug trade. Shouting the chorus with the full power of his throat, he almost sounds like he’s barking. In fact, he is barking; he’s warning the listener that the specter of his drug tales and their inherent misery is not a specter: it is very alive, so alive that even when he’s rapping over a track that is made to be ecstatic, he still feels compelled to reflect on his past.
What’s interesting about this reflection, however, is that he’s actually reflecting on his present. “Dope Song” is just as much about summoning traumatic experiences as it is about acknowledging that those experiences don’t need to be summoned to be felt. “Side B” as a whole feels like a response to “Side A” and vice versa, both in terms of content and in terms of the division itself, but in actuality, both sides are responses to themselves,indicating their parallels and subsequently the fact that the divisions are artificial.
For instance, on the A-Trak produced “Smokin & Drinkin” Danny raps “Stress, party it away, hope these problems just go away.” At another point in the song, he references “Blunt After Blunt;” he’s not just being self-referential here: he’s emphasizing that he uses his problems to solve his problems. Stated differently, he uses bad habits (the past) to solve bad realities (the present). Similarly, on “The Return” he and Freddie Gibbs tell us that the gangster has returned while emphasizing that he never left: “The return of the gangster, fuck a hipster, squeeze a trigger/You got me fucked up: I’m a hood ass nigga.” In both songs, the present is presented as a solution to the past all while acknowledging that there isn’t really a split between the two. Danny Brown (circa 2013) is Danny Brown (circa 2011) is Danny Brown (circa 2009).
This is the main difference between XXX and Old. Whereas XXX was a yearning for something to happen, for a talented to artist to be acknowledged and appreciated for the lengths he goes to make his art, Old is a proof (in the logical sense) that that rapper has never been solely party rapper or thoughtful rapper. He is both simultaneously and neither is possible without the other: he wants to have fun because he spent decades not having fun (selling drugs, being poor, being incarcerated) and he wants to temper his fun because his way of having fun (partying and taking massive amounts of drugs) is not very sustainable.
This argument for harmony and continuity is reflected in both the content and the sound of the album. Despite the album’s apparent schism, few of the instrumentals sonically (aesthetically) indicate whether Danny will definitely rap about his past or his present. For instance, if Danny‘s raps are removed from the dizzying “Kush Coma” (Side B) and the buzzing “Dope Fiend Rental” (Side A), neither one could be definitively placed on either side of the album. In fact, these songs have the same producer: SKYWLKR. Even the hellish “Torture,” with its raspy snares and suffering echoes could become a party track with the right approach. The same goes for the bubbling instrumental of “Red 2 Go;” it could easily burst into something hedonistic. All in all, there is nothing inherent, predestined, about the album’s elements, including the main element, Danny Brown.
In the end, this is Old‘s strength. By setting up and even enacting a false division between old and new, past and present, Danny Brown is able to disrupt both ideas and focus on his real woe: his future. He knows that he’s beyond the party/festival circuit – he’s got the bars, the versatility, the passion, and the energy – but how long can he float above it without crashing? Even he lacks the answer. But the way he poses the question, by mocking the past and the present, is brilliant. A lot of writers and listeners have claimed that Old lacks humor in comparison to XXX, but Old is the best joke of Danny‘s career. The Hybrid is still The Hybrid and fans are still lazy listeners.
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