Danny Brown is 32. To many of his potential fans, that might sound old. To me, well, it actually sounds pretty young. I’ve been doing entertainment journalism on and off for 15 years. And I didn’t start when I was two years old. So, you might assume that I’m older than Danny. And you’d be correct. I might as well spill the beans: I’m 40. But, hey, I still get into new music as much as any younger fans might. Hell, I’m pretty sure I listen to a lot more new music than plenty of people half my age. In fact, I’m sure of it because I’m constantly meeting much younger people who are mostly into classic rock and old punk music, who really have no idea what’s going on with new music today. They think it’s all Katy Perry and Pitbull. Obviously, it’s not. Radio might not realize that, but I certainly do, hence the eclectic reviews here on Love is Pop. Which brings us to Danny Brown, a rap star who’s now achieving an impressive degree of success at 32 years young. You’d probably guess that Danny has named his album Old because people view him as old. Or because he views himself as old. Maybe that’s part of it, but it’s largely because Old is a concept album of sorts with the first half being about the younger Danny, the Danny who people refer to as “old” Danny Brown.
So, who was old Danny Brown? From what I’ve been able to gather, the Detroit native grew up in a home where he was sheltered from the ills of the city only to become a drug dealer at the age of 18. He dreamed of becoming a rapper, but he was too caught up in dealing and evading the law. Until he was finally busted and spent eight months in prison, which would change his life for the better. You see, he spent his time locked up wisely, writing lyrics for songs he wanted to record when he got out. When he was released, he went about making them, starting his rap career, which he began in a hip hop group called Rese’vor Dogs. In 2010, he released a collaboration with G-Unit’s Tony Yayo called Hawaiian Snow and started working on and releasing mixtapes of his own, crafting songs that blended old school and modern hip-hop with the sounds of EDM from the Detroit rave scene and electro-pop, hence Old’s wide range of guest stars, including rappers A$AP Rocky, Zelooperz, ScHoolboy Q and Freddie Gibbs along with electro-pop artists Charli XCX and Purity Ring.
Old consists of two sides, Side A and Side B.
Side A is about old Danny, telling compelling tales about drug dealing and getting into other assorted trouble and the major highs and terrible lows of doing so. It’s also about how, even today, some people would like him to be the old Danny. Not just insofar as the life of crime goes, but insofar as how people are often telling him that they want him to make music like his “old” stuff, as if they’d like him to keep making the same album over and over again. Calling his album Old could be viewed as a sarcastic statement, then, since he’s refused to re-make one of his old records, instead doing something totally new, even if Side A bares old hip-hop influences and stories about his former self.
Side B is about the Danny of today, the Danny who’s into making ground-breaking music and partying hard but staying away from the life of dealing and other assorted crime (unless you count doing drugs). This side is where Danny lets his EDM and electro-pop influences show the most and the result often sounds futuristic and anything but retro. Considering that Old is 19 tracks long, you could basically view it as a double album, viewing each side as an individual record.
“Side A (Old)” opens the album with jumpy beats and a rapid-fire rap delivery reminiscent of the late Tupac Shakur’s marvelous “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” one of this listener’s all-time favorite rap songs. The hypnotic beats and slick bass line of other side A songs, like “The Return” featuring Freddie Gibbs and “Gremlins” are more in the vein of vintage Cypress Hill and House of Pain. “You do it in a song, you do it for real,” Danny raps during “Gremlins,” making it loud and clear that he’s actually lived the stories he’s telling here. One of side A’s best tracks is “Dope Fiend Rental,” which features a superb guest spot by ScHoolboy Q along with snappy, infectious beats and nifty horns, evolving around a sample of “What’s Your Name” by The Moments. To that end, Danny and his producers are quite following and the album contains samples or interpolations from at least six credited songs.
One of side A’s most provocative tracks is the eerie “Torture,” which basically spells out what it’s like having PTSD from the things one sees while dealing on the streets. “Seen another dope fiend beat another with a hammer,” he tells matter-of-factly. “Wish it was what I seen on TV,” he continues. “It’s torture / Look in my mind and see the horrors / All the shit that I’ve seen / It’s torture,” he raps during the chorus. “Probably need a shrink / Can’t get a wink / So I smoke a lot of kush and pop a Xanax to sleep,” he goes on. Some rappers might brag about dealing, but Danny clearly regrets what he’s seen and done and his words border on apologetic.
Another highlight from side A is “25 Bucks,” a collaboration between Danny and the brilliant electro-pop duo Purity Ring, who’ve recently gotten a lot of attention for their fantastic remix of Lady Gaga’s “Applause.” “I’ll not get old / If I dig with my knees, if I grind on my teeth / I know from the attic of me / To the bottom of cleats / From the wayward it seeds,” sings Purity’s Megan James hauntingly. Danny’s lyrics vividly recall the horror stories he’s lived and witnessed, such as this part about a conversation he overheard his mother having on the phone: “Arthritis in her fingers carpal tunnel in her wrists / Bout’ to feed her kids at night sleep between her legs and twist /While she listen to the oldie soap operas smokin’ bogies / On the phone gossiping telling homegirls stories / Girlfriend worried cause her son’s in a hurry / To see the state Pen’ or a cemetery buried / Ma replied do her best but it’s still rough.”
Side B begins with “Side B (Dope Song),” which commences with orchestration that sounds like it could be from the score of Star Wars’ The Empire Strikes Back. Of course, it isn’t — who could afford to sample that? — but you get the idea. It starts off on a slightly ominous tone, like Danny’s been frozen in carbonite and just freed. “I’m back to square A,” he raps. The final lyrics of the track are especially clever and quite telling: “So take this as a diss song, ’cause this is my last song / Not my last dope song, but my last dope song.”
One of the most impressive songs on side B is the SKYWLKR-produced ditty called “Dubstep” but it’s not actually a dubstep song. Here’s the clever hook: “I had them dubs on the step / Slow days, fast days / Gettin’ paper any way.” Danny might have moved on by side B, but he’s still prone to the occasional reminiscing, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Quite to the contrary, impressionable kids might learn a valuable lesson or two from Danny. The song’s final hook is even more interesting: “I had my dubs on the step / I never stopped cause I sit in the booth / I’m spittin’ the truth, realer than Scrooge / You ain’t so why you act, dummy / You think you bad, well that’s funny / I’m try’na get Maybach money / I’m a Mac Miller, spittin’ ASAP, rookie.” Danny might refer to himself as a rookie, but he’s far from it, having released over half a dozen immensely popular mixtapes prior to releasing Old, which is his Fool’s Gold debut and his first album to actually be sold, from what we understand.
Side B’s most intoxicating song is its final track, the mesmerizing “Float On” featuring the always impressive Charli XCX. The mid-tempo song finds Danny rapping slower than he normally does, and in a way that’s especially emotive, calling to mind the drawl of Drake at his crooning best. “Might have a mental breakdown / If it wasn’t for these pills here now.” he raps. “And no matter how it gets, I hold on / Rolling up this dope to cope, I float on.” Danny might still smoke weed but that’s about the most illegal thing he does these days, keeping his head up and his mind focused on music the vast majority of the time. And we’re thankful for that, as Old is easily one of the very best rap albums we’ve heard all year.