There aren’t many rappers whose favorite band is Arcade Fire, who record songs with Insane Clown Posse, or who flirt incessantly with Kathy Griffin, but Danny Brown is that rapper. As a 32-year-old rapper Brown told The Guardian, the title Old is not referring to his age but actually to the fact that he’s been around so long in the rap game, and like the song “Side A” says, older fans want “that old Danny Brown” back.
The “old Danny Brown” first surfaced as a member of the group Reser’vor Dogs in the mid-2000s before releasing his mixtape, Detroit State of Mind, and going on to record The Hybrid and XXX. With Old, Brown brings a new spirit and style to rap using increasingly alternative beats and samples that make it a strong candidate for multiple listens while simultaneously setting a higher standard for hip-hop from here on out.
Brown hails from Detroit, the city that has produced venerated lyricists such as Eminem and Royce Da 5’9”. But Brown isn’t nearly as serious as his Motor City contemporaries. He can most commonly be seen posing for photos with his tongue out and showing off his missing tooth — and as wild as his appearance might be, his lyrics and delivery match up to the hype.
Side A of the album gives fans “that old Danny Brown” and features a deep look into his past in Detroit where he witnessed a lot of violence, drug use and eventually began selling drugs. On “25 Bucks,” Brown spits impressively intricate rhymes about trying to make a few dollars. This track features beats and vocals from Canadian electro-pop act Purity Ring, who previously featured Brown on a remix of their song “Belispeak II.”
Specifically on “Torture,” he paints a picture of a memory in Detroit and depicts his desensitization to violence in a lower, downcast voice than what listeners are used to. He says, he “was like f-cking 7-years old / When I first seen a fiend try to light a rock off the stove.” In “Gremlins,” Brown recalls hustling becoming repetitive and how “school becomes a free meal / street becomes a cheap thrill.”
He gets personal on the first half of the album, even mentioning a daughter, referring to the child his high school girlfriend had with someone else but Brown took in as his own. He even laments not being able to spend as much time with her as he’d like. It is at this point that listeners see a true evolution of Brown as an artist.
Side B of the album marks the extreme change in mood on Old where he switches from reminiscing and delves into the party scene and drug culture with songs such as “Dip,” “Smokin & Drinkin” and “Kush Coma.”
On these songs, he has fun with his sound and skips the unusually low voice for his distinctive high-pitched, sometimes shrill voice. “Dip” features an electronic beat that samples Freak Nasty’s 1996 “Da’ Dip.” The song refers explicitly to the use of MDMA, which Brown has been an active supporter of since its recent transition into rap culture. It is arguably the most hyped-up song on the album with Brown saying, “Off a half a gram of Molly / We about to go party and I don’t know what I’m doing” throughout.
Side B continues to keep the party going with many highlights such as “Break It (Go),” for which Brown recruited Scottish producer Rustie. Together, they create a trap song sure to be seen as twerk-worthy by his massive amount of female fans. “Kush Coma” features A$AP Rocky in an explicit portrayal of marijuana use that seems to glorify the substance but carries a more serious undertone about the two sides to a lifestyle of partying when Brown says, “All these drugs up in me / It’s a miracle I ain’t mirror Kurt” (referring to Kurt Cobain).
Brown’s characteristic voice and eccentric and explicit lyrics made his last album, XXX, an immediate hit. Those qualities certainly reappear on Old, but it carries a more sophisticated and polished sound. While he featured some expected collaborations on Old, such as Ab-Soul and Freddie Gibbs, he also introduced some surprising choices of artists such as Purity Ring and British pop star Charli XCX. Brown’s eclectic range of lyrical subjects mixed with his use of obscure producers such as Paul White, Rustie and Detroit producer SKYWLKR, who infuse techno and U.K. grime sounds into the album create an unprecedented style of hip hop production.
The album concludes with “Float On,” a slower, dreamy track on which Brown talks about it still continuing to be a struggle at the end of the day to cope with everything he’s seen and deal with the stress of writing raps for a growing audience. He raps, “You can never understand all the pressure I’m against / Getting high thinking how to make it better than your last sh-t,” conveying some of the stresses and anxiety that come with success in hip-hop fame.
The track provides the perfect closure for an album that’s one part painful memories and one part a look into a drugged-out lifestyle to ultimately focus deeper on Danny Brown as a human being. As the track comes to a close, Brown talks about his fear of fading away under rap’s continuously changing landscape and burning out from drug use. Brown’s proposed solution is simply to stay more focused on his craft. The result of that focus is Old, an album that easily marks the pinnacle of Brown’s career to date.