By Randy Wagstaff
We all try to prove our complexity all the time: in school, at the bar, on our Facebook pages, at work, at the bar. Complexity of character is a tough quality to convey; we all have it, so demonstrating it to others can be difficult. On Old, Danny Brown’s follow up to XXX, the Detroit MC attempts to do just that, straying away from his trademark up-tempo mix of drugs, sex, and comedy for half of the album, and trying to turn back the clocks for some of his long-time fans who have been demanding a return to a Detroit State Of Mind-style sound. Side A is meant to show that the “old” Danny Brown never left (“The return of the gangsta, ‘cause niggas don‘t believe”); he’s simply there to inform the “new” Danny Brown. At face value, the concept is universal: our old selves define us by adding up to give our present selves a depth of character. The title of the album doesn’t refer to Brown’s age (32), but to an earlier version of the MC, who is essentially going back to it just to show that he can still do it.
The songs on Old are, for the most part, successful, but the rigid construction of the album is problematic. Side A is the album’s substance, where Brown talks about growing up poor in Detroit and having to see and deal with very mature subject matter. On “Wonderbread,” which expands on an incident Brown previously referred to on “Fields,” (“Mommy gave me food stamps, told me to buy Wonderbread/On the way these niggas jumped me, left me with knots in my head”) he paints a vivid picture of how terrifying the simple act of walking to the store for “some bread and a pop” could be in his neighborhood: “Walk out the door first thing I see/A dope fiend standing there looking at me.” Brown, using his trademark high-pitched sound, sounds almost cartoonish over the bouncy beat, making the dark thematic content of the song all the more affecting. When the incident we first heard about on “Fields” finally happens, it’s thrown in by Brown matter-of-factly, in the song’s last line, as if to say it was just another terrible incident in his childhood; no big deal.
Side B is the album’s style (though there are plenty of substances in it), where Brown puts his hair out and exercises the demons he’s built up over the first half of the album by losing himself in excess. “Dip” is especially catchy, but most of the second half of the album is filled with tracks that make even the most responsible of us want to get lost in Brown’s frenzied world. Ironically enough, it’s when the “new” funny, creative, energetic Danny Brown that’s broken into the public consciousness these last few years finally shows up that the album takes off. This is who Brown is now, and this is the person we want to hear. Sure, there were fans requesting a return to the old days, just like there are fans requesting that Kanye return to the first two albums, speeding up old soul samples and rapping about adolescence; instead, we got Yeezus, and that new ground was so much more interesting to explore. On Old, Brown goes for something in between, using the “old” Danny Brown on Side A to explain the necessity of sex, drugs, and alcohol on Side B, but this strategy feels cheap and unearned, like a movie using a flashback to explain a character’s motivations. In this case, the motivation is to cope, but the act of exposition is not particularly noteworthy. Side A is purposefully dispassionate, trying too hard to deliver a version of Danny Brown that has already evolved into something more interesting by 2013; that’s the version I’m looking forward to hearing more from.