It’s the story of Danny Brown too, but he’s just a symbol; a tragic figure for the crumbling colossus that is hip hop, tied up in gold chains and Nike shoelaces, littering dime bags and shotgun shells.
The title Old is a nod to the hip hop heads who want to hear “that old Danny Brown,” the grimy street rap that was his genesis. This is the concept that shapes the whole album: hip hop’s love affair with a traumatic past, one that it tries desperately to escape, but keeps coming back to like an addict. Unlike his last album, XXX, where the representations of drugs were simply a part of Danny Brown’s pill-popping image, drugs in Old are a lens through which we can view the changing focus in the content of popular rap, as well as the changing, complex character of the enigmatic rapper himself. As Mos Def famously said, “hip hop went from selling crack to smoking it.” As the artform becomes more commercial, the role of the rapper has shifted from supplier to consumer. In Old, Brown tells his own story as a product of hip hop, drugs and life on the streets by structuring the record like an old vinyl with an A and a B-side that track his journey.
The first half of the album is a portrait of the past. Brown abandons his signature yapping dog delivery for a more traditional flow and speaks candidly about his childhood as a drug dealer. On “The Return,” he and fellow rags-to-riches rapper Freddie Gibbs trade bars of swaggering street bravado. On “Wonderbread” and “Gremlins,” he paints a series of portraits of the streets he walked, the violence that he witnessed and participated in, and his life slanging drugs to stay alive. But then “Side B (Dope Song)” signals a very sharp transition. Gone are the somber, reflective beats and the serious old school voice. New Danny Brown is out in full force for the rest of the album, barking raunchy lyrics like a hyena in heat. The song is produced by EDM DJ Rustie, and is a frantic pulse of synthesizers that Danny Brown rides like the kick from a tab of acid.
The dualistic nature of Old tracks Brown’s personal metamorphosis through the songs’ stylistic differences. From urban gutters, the art form rose up, its image gritty and raw, of rappers selling drugs to stay alive, navigating the world of gangs and violence, being shaped by the hustle while being painfully aware that the hustle was shaping them. But then hip hop rose to prominence. In its current stage, the genre is a massive commercial enterprise. Rappers like Danny Brown play at festivals for rich kids who come to party, and rich kids want party music, idolizing drug use and good times. Rap is shifting; nowadays we have Trinidad James telling us he “popped a molly, I’m sweatin’” instead of the Notorious BIG complaining that “people look at you like you’s the user, selling drugs to all the losers.”
In Old, Danny Brown embodies this transition. He came from the streets selling crack (the first half of the album), before he became famous from his self-proclaimed “turned-up trap shit,” yelping about Molly pills and blowjobs over electronic, dance-friendly beats (the second half of the album).
The way this arc is worked into the songs is through their aesthetics, beats, and lyrics, and Brown’s delivery is nothing short of masterful. Old is an aural journey that shows us the street life becoming the party life, and how a violent past still lingers like an unwanted guest at the back of the room. Rap as a genre is obsessed with the image of the gangster hustler figure that it constantly perpetuates. Likewise Danny Brown is haunted by his personal demons, and the album paints a picture of a tortured individual.
After the party music climaxes with the over-the-top sonic volume of “Kush Coma,” the album concludes with a Danny Brown that’s closer to what we heard at the beginning. His voice is soft and tired as he croons about how he’s still “tormented with the things [he’s] seen with these eyes,” rattling off a grocery list of the substances he takes just to try to forget.
Article by Zack Sklar