Thursday, October 10, 2013

album review: 'old' by danny brown

Let's talk about artistic dichotomies.

This is a bit of an odd topic, but it's one that does require an examination, particularly considering its rise within music, particularly hip-hop and rap. The principle is simple: holding two exclusive thoughts in your music simultaneously. Or, in simpler terms, the whole concept of the 'thug lover' or the 'gangsta with a sensitive side'. It doesn't really seem to make sense when you start thinking about it, but I'm not surprised at all why so many rappers try it out, because you're nailing two very different markets.

The issue becomes whether or not that separation of exclusive ideas can actually be believable, which is the biggest problem I find with most of these acts. For instance, Ja Rule very much wanted to emulate 2Pac, but he also appeared on duets with female singers and tried to come across as a sensitive dude, and it completely backfired on him because the image didn't hold up under deeper scrutiny. For a more recent example, take a look at Drake - it's clear he's much more comfortable in the sensitive R&B vein, but he still plays the thug and it's rarely believable. It requires an extremely talented artist who can hold multiple personas successfully, and it takes an even better one to make them come across as remotely cohesive on the same album.

Enter Danny Brown, a rapper from the underground who made major waves in 2011 with XXX, a album where Danny Brown pushed that dichotomy between thug and conscientious rapper to the absolute limit, splitting his album into two segments: the sleazy, often grossly explicit thug; and the more street-wise, down-to-earth rapper who was able to provide context for such behaviour. It helped matters that Danny Brown seems smarter than the average girl/riches/car-obsessed rapper, and his meta-commentary strewn throughout both sides of the album did wonders for bringing it all together. Plus, from an instrumentation/production/technical rapping standpoint, the majority of the album was damn near flawless. Going into XXX, I was expecting just another mixtape, and I left with my mind blown because this guy was legit, both as an extremely convincing gangsta presence and as a rapper who could intelligently speak to the grimier, more depressing lifestyles that cultivated that gangsta image. 

So with that in mind, I was intrigued by the fact that Danny Brown's newest album Old would be exploring that dichotomy yet again, but I was also a bit worried - the album was clearly being marketed as 'bigger' and more aimed at the mainstream hip-hop community, and with more writers on board every track, I was worried that some of the more incisive commentary or risky subject matter would get sanded down. Was I right?

Well, not quite. While I don't think Danny Brown's Old is quite as strong as XXX, it's also aiming to do something very different than its predecessor. Brown himself came out many times saying that this album would be different than the first, and he's not wrong - but I don't think the differing change in direction works quite as well as the first, despite the very solid execution. Keep in mind this is still an album I like and will recommend, but there are a number of steps it takes that just undercuts what it could have been a much more affecting record.

So let's start with Danny Brown's vocal delivery. For the most part, I've got no issues: I've always thought his slower, more measured raps are a lot more impacting, but I'm not going to deny there's a certain attention-grabbing intensity to his more deranged side that draws a lot of attention. And while there are unfortunately more lyrics that get on my nerves on this album than the last (a few bad rhymes, a few places where words are rhymed with themselves), for the most part is far above functional. And as I've said before, Danny Brown is extremely convincing portraying both the conscientious rapper he is at heart and the more insane trap/luxury rapper. Hell, if I was looking for a rapper who makes trap instrumentation work in a luxury/club rap context, it'd be here, mostly because Danny Brown spits with just enough of a wry, sardonic tone to justify his ego.

On top of this, the production and instrumentation is mostly great across the board, doing a superb job balancing real grit and texture in the mix (particularly on the first half) with darker, watery synths and clattering percussion that adds a great sense of menace that often fits the lyrics brilliantly. But it's here we run into the first issue I have with this album, and that's on the second half of the album - the synths get a lot cleaner, a lot higher up in the mix, and arguably, a lot less tolerable. Now I accept some of this might just be my issue - I've never liked trap instrumentation paired with transparent luxury raps about cash, drugs, and hoes - but on tracks like 'Side B (Dope Song)' and 'Headstand', they just sound more decadent and paired with Danny Brown's lyrics, all the more shallow. And with Danny Brown, that might have been part of the point - showing just how transparent and unsatisfying the rich 'made-it' lifestyle is - but it doesn't make the songs that much more likable.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's talk about the real meat of this album and what I find both interesting and frustrating about Danny Brown: his lyrics and themes. Here, we need to first establish the underlying themes of XXX, which are important because this album is something of a natural continuation of that work. Like the external dichotomy between thug and conscious rapper, XXX also had something of an internal dichotomy when it came to Danny Brown's motives: he made it clear throughout his rhymes that he was better and smarter than so many of those rappers who had 'made it' (making his point by exaggerating their topics to grotesque extremes), but yet he also wanted to get into that group - he wanted that success to get him out of the trap which he described in vivid detail. That's one of the reasons XXX worked as well as it did: it cast into sharp relief what he was willing to do to get to the top, and then provided necessary context to show why.

But on Old, we get a bit of an inversion of this theme. The first half of this album provides the deeper context and grit and history, showing the process of how Danny Brown is dealing with his new-found fame and cult following. And this part of the album is incredibly compelling - Danny Brown has a gift for detail and deeper poignancy that makes songs like '25 Bucks' and 'Torture' and 'Lonely' and 'Clean Up' so effective and moving. He talks about rising from nothing and how even if he becomes successful, he deals with shifts in expectations and how even if he tries to help his family, he can't fix every problem...

And then the album switches gears and we get a series of songs about drugs, partying, more drugs, girls, and yet again more drugs. He might open with 'Dope Song' saying that it's going to be the last song he ever raps about pot, but it proves to be a complete lie as weed comes up time and time again until the end of the album. Now you could say it's commentary on how rappers who used to talk about drugs all the time try to sober up their image (and ultimately fail), but I'm not sure I buy that considering how there are only sparse moments on the second half of this record where we see glimpses of that deeper intellect and commentary. Indeed, it's not until the last two songs on the album where we see any of that poignancy return, as Danny Brown tries to justify his overuse of pot and molly and coke as just ways to deal with his inner turmoil - hell, his references to pain killers all throughout the final track 'Float On' is proof of that. In other words, the interpretation that can easily be drawn here is that Danny Brown feels, that in order to have 'made it' on the second half of this record, that he sold out, and he can only deal with that existential emptiness and inner betrayal by clouding his mind. Okay, yeah, this is potent and the final line 'Pray I get old just to hear I been the future / Just to see my influence in this genre of music' at the end of 'Float On' is incredibly powerful.

But here's my point and where I feel Danny Brown might be misunderstanding his critical fanbase: people who like XXX might love the club-bangers, sure, but they also loved the cutting commentary and the gleeful subversion that was triggered by the excess of that album, and the deeper context that was granted through the second half (okay, maybe that's just me). When I look at Old, I see plenty of the greater context, but the more subversive element, the one that was providing commentary on the industry and other artists throughout the deranged club songs... well, it's not there to the same extent on the second half of the album (there's more on the first half, to be sure, but still...). Again, that might have been the point, but it also makes the second half of this album not really stand out to me outside of 'Kush Coma' and 'Float On'. I'm not saying that any of these tracks on the second half are bad - most of them are perfectly serviceable - but they felt shallower than Danny Brown is capable, and that's a little disappointing. We have tons of songs about molly and pot and coke, and with the production and instrumentation not quite being at the level of the first half of the album, I can't help but feel the second half is distinctly weaker. And sure, that might have been Danny Brown's point, but it didn't quite make the songs any more enjoyable.

Despite all of this, I do recommend Danny Brown's Old - it's certainly an interesting album, and there are a ton of elements that I liked more than I expected. The entire first half of this record, the first ten tracks or so, nearly all of them are superb and very worth your time, but the second half isn't as strong in my opinion and doesn't quite work as well, particularly if one makes the argument that it's informed by the context provided by the first half. Once again, I have an idea what Danny Brown might have been going for here, but I'm not sure it works quite as well as his intent was on XXX, which is a bit of a shame. This also makes this album more a bit difficult to rate, so keep in mind that this might evolve at some point in my mind throughout this year, but right now this album is a 7/10. If you're interested in Danny Brown, though, I highly recommend you check out Old, at least the first half and the final two tracks. In a world where most rappers seem to running out of things to say and new ways in which to say it, Danny Brown does prove he's got the intellect to stand among the greats, and he deserves support for that, if nothing else.

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