The Year. 1. If this shit don’t work, I failed at life.

1. Danny Brown – XXX [US]

Danny Brown is the best rapper out. They put him on the XXL Freshmen of the Year list for 2012 and he ended up making the whole exercise look as stupid as it is in about fifty ways, from the fact that he is a thirty-one year old man with two excellent albums already behind him to the bare evidence of how badly he showed up everyone else involved simply by being a confident, complete, ingenious rapper on the beat they provided and every other beat he’s been on. They could have put him on a notional XXL Rappers In General 2012 and he would have had a decent chance of doing the same. He put out the best album of 2012, rap or otherwise, and it’s time, in late March, to finally get around to talking about it. There’s a lot to talk about, so get your glasses.

A sage commenter on 2DopeBoyz said he was “on that goof troop hip hop” which is actually an interesting angle to take, because while it’s obvious that he can rap about anything over anything, he does litter his raps with ridiculous pop culture punchlines, even on the serious tracks. XXX itself, the first track on the album, opens with real gravity and a beat that sounds more modern but also more serious than his previous music, the kind of thing you open a ‘classic album’ with. The first line is “colder than them grits they fed slaves”. The fourth line is “sorta like Squidward and his clarinet”. That’s goof troop hip hop. It’s not even one of the many songs in the early-to-middle part of the record where it’s just a string of absurd punchlines about his dick. And it doesn’t even ruin the mood. This is one of the several weird things about Danny Brown.

By the time XXX came out he was already the dude with whose hair is “the most unfortunate decision for an up-and-coming rapper since Wale decided to work with Lady Gaga for his first single.” It seems at times like a legitimate effort to troll those who are into ‘real hip hop’, but ultimately, despite those noted influences in UK grime and post-punk, the dude is probably the best, most versatile, most charismatic rapper-qua-rapper out at the moment. So you can’t let the hair matter. And you can’t let the Squidward line matter. You have to take it for what it is, as you should on a ‘classic album’.

There is a spectrum of styles across the 19 songs (with no skits), as you might expect, but it’s coherent. If you thought a record label debut would result in a couple of radio singles or ones-for-the-ladies, never mind actually having to pay for the music, you would have been mistaken. Pitchfork called it “grubby production, laced with trashy electro” but they can obviously get fucked. Unpolished-sounding samples do mesh with synthesised sounds, but it’s an aesthetic decision, adding a looseness to the clinical squelches and drum machine hits. The looseness fits his style. The weirder the beat, the better he gets. Monopoly, which is the closest thing to actual grubbiness, leads to a tour de force rap when it kicks in, and Outer Space, with a tentative snare and some alien-sounding non-Pythagorean shit going on as a melody, causes a blackout featuring a Vagina Monologues punchline that he doesn’t even bother to properly rhyme.

The overall sonic coherence is especially impressive because there two distinct Danny Browns on XXX. One of them will bust a nut upon a bitch chest, so to speak, and he dominates the first section of the album, especially from Bruiser Brigade at track 7 to Adderall Admiral at track 12. The other one, conversely, is righteous, and he reappears on DNA, having partly introduced himself on the opening track, to rap about selling scrap metal with junkie relatives and vacant lots in Detroit. It could be incongruous but, without labouring the point, Danny Brown is a very good rapper, and it feels more like being invited with him through different aspects of his life than any attempt to shoehorn conscious raps onto a party rap record out of obligation or, worse, shoehorn party raps onto a conscious rap record to make it palatable.

That’s just not what’s happening. It’s just that what could be a brag on one beat is an admission of fault on another, in an artful way. Compare Die Like A Rockstar, a pretty ignorant track about being fucked up like various different dead celebrities, with DNA, about family history with addiction. From the former: “manuscript sick shit, prescription addiction/sniffin’ Adderall off the counter in my kitchen/experiment so much it’s a miracle I’m living”. The latter also has verses full of party brags (“Every night like a bachelor party in Sin City, bitches sniffing coke of each other titties with rolled 50s”) but the hook (“It’s in my DNA, cos my moms liked to get fucked up the same way”) and the beat (low-key with a clarinet) makes the whole thing seem less like bravado and more like description.

There’s a real gravity to some of those later songs. Fields (“and where I live, it was house-field-field, field-field-house, abandoned house-field-field”) is vivid and erudite about Detroit without being trite. Scrap or Die, which I’m going to have to quote more from, is a clever flip of Young Jeezy’s Trap or Die that manages to illuminate the other side of the drug dealer dynamic in rap without seeming preachy. Here’s a bit that’s probably too big to digest in text but fuck it:

We been looking at the house for about a whole month
A family live there, got put out last month
My uncle sniffing blow while I’m rolling up a blunt
His homey in the basement smoking crack with my aunt
And tonight’s that night we about to get right
Piled up in a van with a couple flashlights
Metal crowbars gonna get us through the door
Take everything, fuck the landlord.
So now we at the place, skullys on bareface
Bout to leave this bitch bare, strip the whole damn place
My unc outside, he ripping down the gutters
So we inside tearing up this motherfucker
Bust open the walls just to get the wiring
Took the hot water tank and the left over appliances
Aluminum siding and had to come back
Cause the furnace so big it wouldn’t fit in the back

And it’s copper by the pound
Wire by the inch
Got a cheque on the 1st and it’s gone by the 5th
Scrap or die.

I talked about this with E-40 and it applies to things like novels as well, not that I’m recommending that you should read novels or anything, but this kind of thing, unassuming exposition with a point that’s shown rather than stated, is what makes creates real meaning and profundity. The idea might be so common in society and culture in general that it’s filtered out amongst the white noise, but being able to tell the story is important and, as is obvious on this track above most, choosing the right story to tell can be incredibly effective.

Of course, I’m privileging the conscious stuff again here. There are upwards of ten songs on XXX that don’t purport to give you a point to chew on at all, and they’re just as good. Bruiser Brigade is pretty much just an ode to drinking over a grime-influenced beat, but it’s blood-boiling and it features the ad lib of the year, an E-40-esque faux naïve “Heineken?” in response to Brown’s claim that he is “about that drink of Heineken”. Pac Blood, which is non-ignorant in the sense that Elzhi would probably have bought the beat if Brown didn’t, boasts the following hook:

Tears to Mona Lisa, Medusa to liquid
Make Gandhi grab the burner while they shoot shit
Rhymes that make the Pope wanna get his dick sucked
Had Virgin Mary doing lines in the pickup
Make Sarah Palin deep-throat till she hiccup
Had T.D. Jakes round this bitch doing stick-ups

…before spitting, with remarkable venom, that these are:

Rhymes so real, thought I wrote it in Pac blood
Told me in my dreams that these n- is not thugs.

It’s not quite smoking his ashes, but if there’s a more weighty way to claim realness than actually writing your lyrics in the blood of Tupac, I haven’t heard it. And stray punchlines are everywhere. “You softer than Flanders’ son” is silly but it’s kind of withering because it’s so unexpected. “Rest in peace wack n-s with oversized clothes/Complain about me cos I’m taking all they hos” is pretty much the direct opposite of Z-Ro’s shit-talking about skinny jean rappers, but this is goof troop hip hop, so that’s fine. “I got them Penis Poems for your Vagina Monologues/Love a feminist bitch – ooh, that get my dick hard” is, as mentioned earlier, especially funny because it barely rhymes, and “I got hos in expensive high heels/Your hos toes is fucked/Beauty Supply sandals” is certainly one way to explain your superiority. It is also especially funny because it does not rhyme.

So there’s function and there’s fashion. The sheer consistency of the nineteen tracks would be enough to make it my favourite rap album of the year, but I’ve been dropping ‘classic album’ hints around the place, so let’s address that a little more. The thing flows, and it’s got scope and variety, as I’ve been talking about. What jumps it from being a good album to a great album, and I’m talking about the old ivory tower conception of ‘the album’ here, is the bookending. It opens with XXX and closes with 30, and they do the work of turning it from a collection of songs into what ultimately feels something like a concept album about the life and experiences of a Detroit rapper for whom things are finally happening. On the opener, he’s “getting old, time’s running out/repeating instrumentals, trying to figure patterns out” – because what rapper makes it at 30? He’s “weaving kicks and snares, trying to dodge these hooks/keeping it original, something that’s overlooked.” It’s a first person account of the dude as he comes across on The Hybrid, here and elsewhere, a rapper who’s just trying to make original rap music, who’s too old for the major label radio play dreams but still passionate enough to want to do it anyway. On 30, we meet that dude again, with all the context of the rest of the record behind us.

Step inside a mind that revolves around the rhyme
And every time he close his eyes he sees visions of white lines
Dying in the arms of a blonde blue-eyed twenty-something
Don’t know her name, but the paramedics, chest-pumping
Thirty-something black male OD’d off of pills
That he wasn’t prescribed, but they took his life
Left behind a daughter that doesn’t really even know him
Cause her momma thought he wouldn’t make a living off them poems

But it was a long journey on a rocky road
Had a hoodie on and a jacket in the snow
Walking in the cold on the way to the studio
N- that was just a couple of years ago
Dropped a couple free mixtapes on the net
And n-s tryna front like it wasn’t all that
But guess what bitch, I’m coming back
Guess what bitch, I’m coming back

NFL analysts talk positively about players who have a “chip on their shoulder”, as if personal vendettas against specific teams, players or the media would supercharge them and make them more effective. I guess that’s what’s happening here. Danny Brown’s 30 years old (or he was when he made the record) and that’s a long time to be a rapper that hasn’t made it.

Never learned to rap, always knew how
Ever since a n- 8, I knew what I would do now
When I turned 28, they like ‘what you gonna do now?’
And now a n- 30 – so I don’t think you heard me
The last ten years I been so fucking stressed
Tears in my eyes, let me get this off my chest
The thoughts of no success
It got me chasing death
Doing all these drugs, thoughts of OD’ing next

And that’s how it ends, one final explanation that, above and beyond all the other shit, being a rapper is what Danny Brown does. A lot of rappers call themselves the greatest ever and it’s ridiculous to believe any of them, but there’s something special about Danny Brown. He is, as he says, “a smart n- who do dumb shit” and that makes him more entertaining than just about every rapper that isn’t making dance songs about specific celebrities they’ll never meet, but the consistency, originality and occasional patent genius of his music is down to more than just charisma and clever metaphors and punchlines. XXX proves that he is the complete package and if he never sells more or he overdoses in the arms of a blonde twenty-something, he will have left a mark on culture as an almost never-was who persevered, stepped up when it mattered and delivered something great.

Danny Brown – Outer Space
Danny Brown – Scrap or Die
Danny Brown – 30


4 responses to “The Year. 1. If this shit don’t work, I failed at life.

  1. Brilliant piece on deconstructing Danny Brown. Guys an amazing rapper, the album’s consistantly surpassing itself on every listen. Been on a constant repeat for me since i downloaded it, so much so I’ve renamed my iPod my xxxPod…

  2. Karl, izza tour de force bro. Been a long journey. Sad this list is over. It was your best list.

  3. great writing

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