Divided by the self-explanatory tracks "Side A (Old)" and "Side B (Dope Song)," Danny Brown's latest, Old, is a record with a split personality. One half is a collection of harsh drug raps that offer a jarring glimpse of the horrors of Brown's days on the crumbling Motor City streets. The other half is a pulsing barrage of electronic beats that carry listeners through the simultaneous euphoria and panic of molly-popping revelry. It's an illustration of Brown's evolution as a person and a musician, as well as a way to expose his quickly growing fan base to the rapper's harsh roots.
"For fans of the side-B tracks, you have to get through side A," Brown says, explaining that by showing off his street-rap pedigree, he's "showing you that I'm going to be able to still grow."
Brown's time in the limelight, after all, is far exceeded by his years in obscurity. At 30 years old, Brown made his breakthrough with 2011's XXX, an album that Brown described as being all about impressive "punchlines," and eliciting chuckles and gasps with his unabashedly graphic, undeniably funny verses. And even that record took time to catch on.
"To be honest, when I put XXX out, it took like a year," Brown says. "It didn't happen right away." Once it did, Brown developed a reputation as a chameleon on tracks, shifting pitch, tone and tempo at will to perfectly match any beat he's given.
If XXX was his audition for the hip-hop talent show, Old is a tough-to-watch documentary film series. As Brown puts it, "Old is just straight up." On side A, in tracks like "25 Bucks" and "Torture," he drops bars on getting fronted for drugs by the same dealer who jumped him, or watching crack fiends face humiliation from a dealer's pit bull for owing cash.
The newfound recognition also gave Brown the opportunity to push his versatility to its limit on Old, which he did by making personal pleas to artists he admires, like Canadian electronic duo Purity Ring (which appears on "25 Bucks") and British electronic act Charlie XCX (on the album's closing track, "Float On").
"It's one thing to hit someone up on Twitter, but when you meet them in real life and look them in the eye, it's different," Brown says. "That's how it happened with Charlie and Purity Ring. When I work with somebody, I like to go into their world and bring them into mine." The resulting work was a surprising marriage of electronic pop and rap — all of it anchored by Brown's painfully descriptive and discerningly detached verses.
The success of both records has only bolstered Brown's confidence. He's emphatic about continuing to push the limits of the genre, going so far as to mention Spencer Pollard — of hardcore band Trash Talk — as a future collaborator, and name-dropping Stanley Kubrick as an inspiration for his upcoming work. Such brash announcements would be a big surprise — if this weren't Danny Brown we were talking about.