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Wacky Rapper Strikes Gold with Seriousness

By Jess Linde

Section: Arts

October 4, 2013

In the contemporary hip-hop landscape, artists with big personalities and raunchy lyrics are pretty much everywhere. The club “banger” market of pounding bass and encouraging illicit behavior is seemingly endless, and the Internet has provided careers to independent artists such as Trinidad James, Waka Flocka Flame and Chief Keef, and countless DJs who get paid decent money just to blast songs. Rap that talks about “popping Molly” is arguably its own subgenre at this point, with mainstream artists like Rick Ross and Lil Wayne embracing it.
Still, there are plenty of serious independent rap artists doing their own (great) things with the art form, including but not limited to The Underachievers and Run The Jewels.

At some point in recent history, these two opposites of the hip-hop spectrum collided and formed Danny Brown. His breakout 2011 album “XXX” is an hour of brilliant madness, featuring all the drug-fueled sex talk one could want, as well as deep and introspective lyrics about the effects of said drugs and the poverty and violence of Brown’s native Detroit. That combined with Brown’s famously wild live shows and his outgoing and silly personality helped make Brown himself worth watching, not just as an artist. Of course, it helped that his music is awesome, too.

Since then, Brown has cultivated this image of a “fun” MC, someone who isn’t afraid to go crazy and party, but also has the rap chops to back it up, something complemented by his very funny Twitter feed. But for “Old,” his second album for the Fool’s Gold label, Brown has changed his game almost completely and delivered 19 tracks of pure gangsta-rap coolness. “Old” begins with bragging and gun-waving with songs like “Side A” and “The Return,” and slowly progresses, moving into emotionally vulnerable and brutally honest lyrics on “Torture,” and “Lonely.” Album features such as prolific indie MC Freddie Gibbs beef up the tough parts, and surprise guests like dream-pop act Purity Ring add emotional layers to the sadder stuff.

The emotional realness of the album reaches its peak with “Clean Up,” in which Brown raps about his relationship with his absent father and his severely poverty-stricken mother and how his family made him get his own life together. Here, Brown uses a deep, sad monotone not heard in any of his previous work. Then the powerful, pulsing “Side B (Dope Song)” comes along to introduce the second part of “Old,” and suddenly the party is back, in a big way. The following songs, including highlights “Dubstep,” “Smokin’ & Drinkin’” and “Kush Coma” use the weird voice and flow Brown is famous for to produce his familiar craziness that both comes out of nowhere and fits right in.

“Old” is many things, including one of the year’s best hip-hop albums and a concept album representative of Brown’s life and career. But more than anything else, “Old” is a heck of a good record, even if you’ve never listened to “XXX.” The songs on “Old” are fun, interesting and, at points, touching. Brown has always been a very up-front and in-your-face kind of artist, but here, he strips his image and public perceptions bare, and shows them to the world before building them back up better than ever. With Brown, what you see is what you get, and in that case, “Old” is a great deal.

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