opinion byMATTHEW M.F. MILLER
Take that, Arcade Fire. Old, Danny Brown’s eccentric third LP, beat everyone’s OMG-they’re-my-favorite-band-in-the-whole-wide-world to the two-sided album punch. So what if the guy has never won a Grammy or turned Saturday Night Live into his own experimental Zorro-themed art show? Brown’s head is alive with legions of sounds and ideas – from hardcore hip hop to EDM, from a childhood trip to buy Wonderbread to Molly-fueled debauchery.
As is the case with Arcade Fire, Brown is at the peak of his creativity, but Old isn’t the result of too much material or too many long songs to fit on a single album. Danny Brown is at war with the competing versions of himself and has chosen to allow listeners full battle access. Old is essentially two albums that represent the competing personalities of the Detroit-bred rapper: Danny Brown the person versus the product, who he used to be versus who he is today, the good versus the bad. The exceptional and more serious-minded personal struggles of Side A take on the festival-baiting, drugs and sex fanaticism of Side B, and as different as the two sides are, they make for one compelling listen.
Side A is nearly flawless, and the majority of its standout tracks, such as the triumphant “The Return” and the unshakable “Lonely”, are rapped in Brown’s deep voice, which represents his grounded, thoughtful side. Side B relies on his higher, nasally “party” voice, which is used to riotous effect on the MDMA obsessed “Dip” and the equally obsessed – this time he’s fixated on sex – “Break It (Go)”.
Brown is at his best when he’s waxing hard-knocks poetic about his childhood (“Wonderbread”) or tackling the duality of his own life. “Side A (Old)” is a thumping confrontation of what people expect a sober, cleaned-up Brown to be (“They want that old Danny Brown to bag up and sell a whole pound.”). “Clean Up” is a painful consideration of a man exploring his roles as both a father and a son in the name of kicking a nasty drug habit (“Daughter sending me messages saying, ‘Daddy, I miss you. But in this condition I don’t think she need to see me. … It’s time for me to clean it up. I’ve come too far to fuck it up like”).
“Lonely” is easily the album’s best track, not just because it’s uplifting, but also because it manages to be so without condescension or sentimentality (“Hipster by heart but I can tell you how the streets feel”). And while other rappers have sampled Radiohead, Brown sounds as comfortable name checking the band as he does prophesizing about the saving up for an abortion and the pain of isolation. It’s a truly unique listening experience.
It’s not all heady, and sometimes that’s a detriment. Pleasure-bent songs are plentiful and likely will play to a larger audience, but their thrills don’t cut as deep and occasionally veer on redundancy. “Smokin & Drinkin” is basically “Dip” all over again – same song, different vice. Fun Danny Brown is also far more vulgar, and the shtick begins grow thin as the album nears its conclusion, but even it’s worst songs (“Handstand” and “Dope Fiend Rental”) don’t overstay their welcome. Every track is tightly produced ear candy, and at least when the lyrics fail the music remains engaging.
What makes Old great is its refusal to be one coherent statement. The album is as messy and wild as Danny Brown’s life. It was a risk for a relatively unproven talent to assume he had enough to say to justify such a lengthy project because, let’s face it – he’s no Arcade Fire. One thing you should never underestimate, though, is the power of a good story, and Danny Brown has a wealth of them, which makes Old not just the best hip-hop album of the year – but a major factor in every discussion of album of the year. Your move, Arcade Fire. [A-]