For its vision and audacity and pure sonics, Yeezus is a great album. I’ve been calling it my favorite album of the year for months now, and all of a sudden I’m not so sure anymore. In any case, even if it’s the album of the year, it’s definitely not the rap album of the year. If you look at rap albums based on their core virtues, on beats and raps and maybe energy and innovation, Danny Brown’s Old is easily the best rap album anyone has released in 2013, the best on since Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. It has peers, and they come from all over the rapscape: Run The Jewels, Acid Rap, Y.R.N. (Young Rich Niggas), Dreamchasers 3, Doris, The Luca Brasi Story, even this week’s My Name Is My Name. But in terms of pure achievement, Old vaults past all of them, into legend territory. Its fundamentals are rock-solid, Brown packing his verses with internal rhyme and allusion and sense of place, keeping a sharp eye for details as he sets up scenes and tells stories. Its sonics are adventurous, borrowing from dance and indie and psychedelia while at the same time staying harder and more physical than almost any rap record I’ve heard this year. It’s a classically constructed LP, building a complete arc and making sure each track flows directly into the next. And it’s also a work of criticism, taking the piss out of street-rap and party-rap and the way Brown has seen his own image develop. It’s just a staggering piece of work altogether, an album we’ll be picking through for a while.
There’s a classic, archetypal rap narrative, and it goes something like this: Rapper is born poor, starts from nothing, sells drugs just to get by, gets his first taste of money, learns hard lessons, loses friends, grinds hard enough that he finally makes his dreams come true, gets absurdly rich, shrugs off haters and fake friends, ascends to the top (if he doesn’t die somewhere along the line). Jay-Z is just now living out that story’s platonic ideal, but just about any rapper who attains any level of fame tells some variation on it. And on Old, Brown tells that story in one long concept-album arc. But there’s a twist here: Brown’s childhood, and his drug-dealing past, were so fucked up and squalid and desensitizing that they linger with him and haunt him; the trauma doesn’t go away just because he’s making money rapping. And anyway, he’s using that money to try and forget about the terrible things he’s seen, obliterating his brain on every drug he can find, and it’s not working. He’s able to find little moments of exhilarated escape, but he’s losing control chasing those moments, and he never really gets a chance to step back and appreciate the better parts of his life because that life is still whirling too fast. And if anything, he’s making things worse with his money, failing as a father and as a son, losing any sense of himself. The funny part is that Brown, even as he tells this tragic and fucked-up story, is still fulfilling the escapist demands of his genre. The hard, purist rap tracks work on a deep head-nod level, and the faster, more frantic songs will make great drugged-out party soundtracks. Even as Brown lays out the fallacy of the storied rap-life triumph, he can’t help but glorify it a little bit.
The title of Brown’s last album XXX was a play on words: The sex-and-drugs connotations were important, of course, but he was also a 30-year-old grown man finally making it in a genre that prizes youth and dumb decisions. I thought Old would be something like this, too, but instead the title seems to come from Brown’s fixation on his past and his inability to escape it. The first half of the album is the more fundamentally rap side of things, the one where Brown generally raps in his calm, controlled voice rather than his horny-Tasmanian-devil yap. And it opens with “Side A (Old),” which is about how many of his rap-dude fans wish he’d return to the Dilla-damaged boom-bap that he was doing a few years ago but how that kind of music mostly reminds him of the time he’s trying to escape. Brown can do that stuff, but it’s not good for him because it keeps him stuck in the memories of cranking up ovens so his cold-ass Michigan apartment would be halfway habitable. The images pile up: His mother keeping lights on by braiding neighbors’ hair for $25 a head, the junky who “damn near burned his top lip off” trying to light his pipe on a stove, the time a couple of fiends jumped him and stole the loaf of bread he was carrying home. Hearing these stories one after another (and they really are expertly told stories, the imagery sharp and concrete), Old emerges as an album about post-traumatic stress disorder. Brown is clear about this. He notably dissociates, switching to the third person when he raps about the shameful things he’s done on “Gremlins.” And he explicitly addresses the lingering effects on “Torture”: “It’s torture / Look in my mind and see the horrors / All the shit that I’ve seen.”
All this leads up to “Side B (Dope Song),” the climactic moment that ends the first half and slides things into party-rap territory. It’s a dizzy sprint of a track, producer Rustie turning staccato Psycho string-stabs into rave synths and speeding up Brown’s voice into a cartoon word-bubble giggle. And, at least in terms of subject matter, it fits neatly into the drug-dealing reminisce narrative, the stuff that’s been rap’s bread and butter for the past decade or so. But even here, there’s no glamor in the stuff Brown talks about: “Crackhead Lisa, she used to be thick / Had sex with a trick, and now she sick / She offer you some head if you give her some drugs / Just make sure when you hit it, you better wear a glove.” And throughout, Brown insists that this is the last time he’ll rap about this (“not my last dope song, but my last dope song”), and calling out other rappers for cruising off of the stuff they had to do as children. And that leads into present-day Brown, the world-touring party monster who can’t escape everything he talked about on the album’s first half.
The album’s second half is a mad, out-of-control blur of sex and drugs, and it’s where the production switches over from some variation of classicist rap to pounding keyboard insanity. This stuff should be fun, and it is. If you’ve seen Brown’s festival set in the last couple of years, you know that he totally murders this stuff onstage, and it works as absolute top-shelf music for firing yourself up. But if you listen close enough, you’ll hear that Brown doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself too much: “And I keep feeling like I’m gon’ faint, but fuck that, nigga, pass me that drank / I done drunk too much, I might throw up in a hotel bathroom sink.” He raps about ignoring his daughter’s texts while he’s snorting crushed-up pills off of room-service menus, about the crippling guilt that still isn’t enough to get him out of the brain-ruining cycles that he keeps himself trapped in. And the worst part is that he knows exactly what he’s doing the whole time, knows that things are bad and getting worse but feels powerless to pull himself out of his tailspin: “Stress party, get away, hope that these problems just go away / Right there in my face, I ignore it every day.”
On the first half of the album, Brown devotes an entire verse to rapping about rapping, or rapping about attempting to write rap. He’s remembering himself selling drugs in a cold Detroit house, trying to use his downtime to write raps, unable to get a complete thought down because fiends keep knocking on the door whenever he’s on the verge of something, stressing about a possibly-impending police raid the whole time. As the album ends, with the Charli XCX collab “Float On,” Brown’s back to writing about writing again. He’s talking about sniffing Adderall and trying to get himself into the right headspace to top the last thing he’s done, putting so much pressure on himself that he can’t think. But, I mean, he’s done it. He did it. Because Old is incredible.
And I haven’t even really mentioned the music here. In interviews, Brown has talked about how he went about the challenge of following up an acclaimed album. Brown studies albums (his Complex list of his favorite albums is the best of its kind that I’ve seen), and the precedent that he settled on was Kid A. What struck Brown about that album was this: It was no longer about Thom Yorke’s lyrics; it was about the sounds and textures that Radiohead created. Now, Old is a lyrics-first album if you want to hear it that way; the scope and depth and intensity are all rare things. But if you want to judge it on its music alone, it’s just as powerful. On the album’s first half, Brown raps over cluttered and damaged sample-heavy tracks from producers like Oh No and SKYWLKR. The British producer Paul White, in particular, shines here; the chopped-up cascades of psych-rock guitar on “Lonely” and the pimp-strut bassline on “The Return” are things of beauty. But even the Purity Ring collab “25 Bucks” fits neatly into the fabric of that straight-rap first half, since Brown’s take on straight-rap is a more still a freaked and emotional thing. And then, on the second half, things go into drugged-up overdrive, with Rustie and A-Trak and Darq E. Freaker and SKYWLKR again piling on the hall-of-mirrors keyboard echoes and dumb-out drum clusters.
As much as the album’s sound changes, though, Brown sounds masterful over all of it, switching up cadence and delivery as the tracks demand and keeping one song crashing into the next. (On a 19-song album, only one track goes past four minutes, rare for a rap record.) The guests all show out, too: Freddie Gibbs supplying calm authority, A$AP Rocky exploding with starpower, British grime rapper Scrufizzer attacking with a deeply impressive seesawing triple-time flow. But even with all these things working at peak capacity, the thing about the album that sticks with me is the unease of it all, the sense that Brown, for all he’s accomplished, can’t find peace. I hope Brown’s real life isn’t what he’s depicted here, but if it is, it’s even more impressive that he manged to crank out an instant-classic album like this while he was going through it.
Old is out now on Fool’s Gold.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Pusha T’s cold, ferocious, near-perfect My Name Is My Name.
• Psychic, the mesmeric downtempo synth-prog debut from Nicolas Jaar’s Darkside.
• Glasser’s twinkling, gorgeous sophomore album Interiors.
• Sleigh Bells’ gleaming but low-energy Bitter Rivals.
• Last Night On Earth, the debut from Lee Ranaldo’s new band Lee Ranaldo And The Dust.
• Of Montreal’s relatively stripped-down lousy with sylvianbriar.
• Summer Camp’s fizzy self-titled indie-pop debut.
• Frog Eyes’ illness-haunted Carey’s Cold Spring.
• RJD2′s collab-heavy comeback More Is Than Isn’t.
• Mind Spiders’ zoned-out psych-punker Inhumanistic.
• Earthless’s stoner-churning From The Ages.
• Anna Calvi’s story One Breath.
• Cursive frontman Tim Kasher’s solo turn Adult Film.
• Van Dale’s self-titled indie-retro debut.
• Hiss Clancyness’s psych-pop debut Vicious.
• The charity-driven Fela Kuti tribute compilation Red Hot + Fela.
• Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr.’s solo AHJ EP.
• Diplo’s collab-happy Revolution EP.
• Parquet Courts’ Tally All The Things That You Broke EP.