Danny Brown As Visionary Rap Star
Danny Brown is still coming back to Earth. It’s nearing lunchtime, and he’s splayed out on a couch in the lobby of a Manhattan hotel, looking as if he’s just woken up or as if he’s still trying to restore his energy following the previous night’s show. The show in question was at Webster Hall — a venue some 20 minutes downtown from here, near Union Square — and served as something of a teaser for one of the more anticipated albums of the year, even in a year as rich with major releases and new musical revelations as 2016 has been. That album, Atrocity Exhibition, which just began streaming a few days early, has been feverishly awaited because it’s the follow-up to 2013’s Old, a collection that capitalized on the simmering breakthrough of 2011’s XXX and launched the rapper into the kind of ranks that garner undying critical fascination as well as fervent crowds flocking to his many festival sets. It’s the kind of release that, in some ways, can determine the arc of Brown’s career from this point forward.
The people who were at that show, as ever, got the full spectacle of Danny Brown onstage. The setlist, as it has in the past few years, leaned heavily on material from Old‘s second side — the stuff that was tailor-made as Brown’s own deranged take on party anthems, the stuff that was tailor-made to heighten his profile and give him more bangers to take out on the road. And Brown still delivers this stuff with all the frantic, manic energy we’ve come to expect from him onstage, running back and forth, barking out this chorus, then sliding up into that higher-pitched zany whine-rap he does, stacking “Side B (Dope Song)” and “Smokin & Drinkin” back to back. Aside from a few detours like Old standout “25 Bucks,” the show reliably toes the line and remains The Danny Brown Party, only gesturing toward the darkest corners of his catalog if you’re really paying attention. Then, at the end, he snuck in “When It Rain” and “Really Doe” next to each other, leaving the audience with a tantalizing hint of What’s Next.
So, today, he is hardly audible. At least at first. His voice is still a little damaged, and it emits as a low, roughened mumble from Brown’s surprisingly tall frame. (Maybe it’s the boots, maybe it’s the permanently askew hair shooting off in multiple directions, but he’s way taller than he, for whatever reason, appears onstage.) It’s a broken, haggard-rasp counterpart to when Brown raps in his more meditative lower register, but it threatens to break altogether in conversation. Even so, it doesn’t take long for him to warm up, for the rampant energy spikes that characterize his music to start creeping in and reorienting the flow of our conversation. He wheeze-chuckles to himself, often. We talk a lot about all the things that led him to this place, sitting here in front of me as one of the more beloved and idiosyncratic characters in today’s rap landscape, in today’s music landscape in general. But we also talk about that What’s Next, because a not-insignificant facet of Brown’s magnetism is that nobody else sounds quite like him, and he’s proving that he can keep mutating and surprising us even when whatever came before would seem near-unsurpassable.
Atrocity Exhibition is, stylistically, a forward-thinking successor to the already forward-thinking Old. (Read Stereogum’s review here.) At times, he looks further back down weirder avenues of rap history than many of his contemporaries do, but his gift has always been making rap music that sounds like it’s rooted in some slightly skewed alternate dimension, proceeding alongside whatever’s out there now but speaking in a more warped language.
Thematically, however, Atrocity Exhibition finds Brown taking a step back. He wanted to continue where the story left off after XXX, meaning if you look at the narratives of his recent albums, and what parts of his life they draw on, the chronology is scrambled. “I did some Tarantino,” he says, followed by a laugh that’s a gravelly, percussive line of hm-hm-hm-hm. “Switch the scenes up a little bit. Instead of trying to continue on from [XXX], I just went back and gave you the past [on Old], and a little bit of the future and where I’m at at the present time in my life.” (Speaking of Tarantino references, Brown raps, “I’m like Vega rolling with that blade” in Atrocity Exhibition‘s lead single “When It Rain.” Though it could be referencing the Street Fighter character Vega, it could easily double as a call-out to the infamous ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs, especially considering Brown’s roots in the short-lived, early-’00s rap trio Rese’vor Dogs.) So, in that sense, the order goes: Old Side A, XXX, Atrocity Exhibition, then Old Side B.
According to Brown, the core concept of XXX was the depression and struggle of trying to become a rapper. Atrocity Exhibition picks up the narrative from there: the moment where you get what you’ve always wanted but it doesn’t quite solve everything. Everyone can relate to the striving early chapters. What follows — when you get to live some version of your dream, but it’s not quite what you expected — is a more complicated experience that, arguably, can yield richer artistic results. “It wasn’t the end all,” he remembers. “It was more pressure, and more stress.” He’s quick to point out that he’s happier now, even though ups and downs are inevitable, but that there is the weight of continuing to be able to make music, period, but especially to make music at the level he already has, or preferably surpassing that. “It’s like, you got the job…” he says. “The last thing you want to do is lose it.”
So then, that title. When Brown announced his new album back in the summer, that was one of the big headlines: “Danny Brown’s new album is named after a Joy Division song.” The song in question is the opening track to Joy Division’s 1980 album Closer — the sophomore effort that only saw release after Ian Curtis’ suicide — and it’s a roiling thing dominated by sheets of guitar noise. It also has a set of lyrics that resonated with Brown, including its initial lines:
“Asylums with doors open wide/ Where people had paid to see inside/ For entertainment they watch his body twist/ Behind his eyes he says, ‘I still exist.'”
Brown got into Joy Division while he was recording XXX, having watched both the documentary Joy Division as well as the Curtis biopic Control. When Brown starts an album, he doesn’t have a title or concept in mind at first — he starts making songs, exploring where they lead him. But he already had the title Atrocity Exhibition in mind while working on XXX. “I was still newer,” he says, explaining why he felt as if he couldn’t use the name then. “I thought people wouldn’t have got it.” But, at this point, five years later, it’s a matter of Danny Brown being Danny Brown. He can name his new album Atrocity Exhibition, and people will follow.
There were reasons “Atrocity Exhibition” resonated with Brown. “Some freakshow, some sideshow exhibit, people just wanna come to see him be at his worst,” he says, describing Curtis’ narrative within the song. “I feel that same kind of way sometimes.” Due to the rawness of some of Brown’s songs, and the travails they portray, he can relate. “A lot of times I meet people and they’re like, ‘You’re not as crazy as I expected,’” he says. They think he’s supposed to be on drugs all the time, they think he’s supposed to be this eccentric character all the time. There’s a weight there: the character of “Danny Brown,” and the man Danny Brown shifting in and out of that but also living with people expecting him to always be “Danny Brown,” no matter when they come across him.
These were thoughts he had way back during XXX, but one has to imagine it must be that much more severe now — after all, he was still making his name then. Now, he has his own iconography, built well beyond the “new Ol’ Dirty Bastard” reputation that preceded Old. Now he’s on display. Perhaps as a result — or as a result of the name and cover being unveiled — there’s been this implicit assumption that Atrocity Exhibition would go deeper and darker than even its predecessor did, and many initial descriptions of the record have indeed painted it as a haunting, twisted listen. It’s something that’s half-confusing to Brown himself. “Maybe I’m just demented,” he says, amused. “I just thought it was entertaining. I wanted it to sound urgent.”
And it does sound urgent, much in the same way that Old‘s split-identity halves did. That was an album where things did have a bleakness hanging over them. Side A dug back into Brown’s youth and the shit he saw in Detroit; it has rightfully accrued a reputation as being a harrowing listen. Side B has a different kind of reputation — the dance songs, the party songs. As the narrative goes, these were songs designed specifically to bring Brown onto the kind of merciless festival touring circuit he’s dominated in the last few years, and that comes with a suggestion as if this isn’t the real Danny Brown or something. Even he says, “Side A is real, that’s the album. Side B is the performance piece.” (At another point in the conversation, he talks about how part of him wanted to simply release Side A — with Side B closer “Float On” as the final track — as the entire album.) But even when Brown is indulging a pop gambit, he’s still himself. Sure, these were the party tracks, but they were still fairly dark songs, too. “What people don’t understand is a lot of those songs are about depression,” he explains. “’Smokin & Drinkin’ to forget about it, just partying to get away from all your problems.”
It’s well-established at this point that much of Brown’s music confronts a lineage of his own demons. And while looking at Old as being a series of dark memories followed by the party at the end can tempt you into the perception that the second half was some kind of pop concession, Brown rejects that idea. “It’s still a part of me, that’s still me in there,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s me with levels, and me wanting to do different things.” He specifies, laughing: It was cool to finally see girls dancing to Danny Brown songs and, shit, he likes to party too.
Those divisions within Brown’s palette go back to the image of “Danny Brown,” too, the “Atrocity Exhibition” of being a public figure with a troubled past you’ve been nakedly open about and, as a result, have been filtered through as your work has been mediated. In reality, Brown sounds like more of a hermit when he’s back home in Detroit. “Everybody got that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing to them,” he says, describing the tension of his public persona and private life, of the wild-man Danny Brown vs. the tortured Danny Brown, or vs. the quotidian Danny Brown. It’s an apt way to trace how his rapping style has developed, too. There’s more range than a strict binary would allow, but the thing that distinguishes him is that higher, unhinged flow, the one that sounds like loose electricity raging forward in an unpredictable zig-zag. Then he can drop down into the husky, moody flow, the one where he sounds like a more traditional rapper and tells the more pained stories from his past.
Jekyll & Hyde: that’s a polarity, and it’s often defined Brown in recent times. But his albums are really sprawling and diverse things that offer a range of styles, moods, and approaches — sometimes within the same songs, sometimes within a delineated Side A and Side B, or sometimes, as in the case of Atrocity Exhibition, in a big wiry collection where Brown throws curveball after curveball. It is, probably, his most stylistically varied work to date. Some tracks — like opener “Downward Spiral” and “White Lines” — sound like a Looney Tunes character that took too much LSD. There’s the frantic, unnerving rush of “When It Rain,” and the comparison point of closer “Hell For It,” in which Brown raps over little more than a piano figure and a barely there bassline.
Standouts “Ain’t It Funny” and “Dance In The Water” have the infectiousness of the party tracks from Old Side B, but feel as if Brown is pushing them further into his funhouse mirror version of rap music. “Ain’t It Funny” is a racing, insistent track built on the blare of synths and horns, while “Dance To The Water” uses its rousing vocal sample and clattering percussion to similarly propulsive ends. Then you have tracks like “Tell Me What I Don’t Know,” which would fit right in on Old Side A, and in fact dates from that era. Those are the songs that lean more in a classicist rap direction, but Brown takes that funhouse mirror approach again. “Tell Me What I Don’t Know” tells more stories from home — “Tell me what I don’t know/ Last night homie got killed at the liquor store/ Shot my nigga on the way to get a Swisher/ Breaking down the weed when the call got received” — but it’s built on a beat that tumbles into a break of stuttering percussion, like a heartbeat simultaneously quickening and going off the rails.
One of the first songs we heard from Atrocity Exhibition was also one of its most anticipated. When the album’s tracklist came out, “Really Doe” stood right out — a posse cut featuring Earl Sweatshirt, Ab-Soul, and Kendrick goddamn Lamar. Brown and Lamar have been friends for years, but the genesis of “Really Doe” goes back to when Brown recorded something for Lamar’s 2015 masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly. Brown’s work didn’t wind up on the final album, and K-Dot subsequently told him, well, he owed him one. “Really Doe” was always destined to be a posse cut, but Brown originally envisioned it as him, Kendrick, and Run The Jewels — a party featuring several of the rap world’s heavy-hitting, visionary figures at once. Due to their own efforts on the third Run The Jewels album, El-P and Killer Mike couldn’t make it, but one day Brown was hanging with Ab-Soul — one of his close friends — and they wound up working on the track.
Somewhere along the line, Brown planned “Really Doe” as verse after verse — no hook, no chorus — and he had given Lamar a different beat to check out. “He came into the studio, listened to all the songs and he took that one, because that was unfinished,” Brown says of the first time Lamar heard “Really Doe.” “He took it and put a hook on it with a bridge, made it his own thing,” he says, laughing. Fast-forward to this past spring, and Atrocity Exhibition was completed save “Really Doe,” which was sitting around waiting for Earl’s verse. Once it all came together though, it was worth it. It’s a stunning track, with everyone bringing their A-game, but Earl delivering a particularly impressive verse. Brown is rightfully proud of the moment, the idea that instead of making a big pop hit with Kendrick & co., they made an intense song showcasing lyrical and vocal prowess. “It was about sparring,” he says. “That’s what I told [them]. Let’s spar, let’s get in this ring. And everybody agreed.”
Otherwise, Brown prefers to mostly operate alone. There was no posse cut on Old, but there were features throughout. “That’s what I didn’t want [on Atrocity Exhibition],” Brown says. “Get ’em out of the way with one, and that’s it.” Features, to him, project something: like you need help. Particularly in the case of calling on someone with as much reach as Kendrick, he asserts that it can come across as if you’re trying to use a bit of that fame to coast your way up to a higher level. Besides, Brown is one of those artists where it can sometimes sound foreign to suddenly hear another person’s voice enter his world. He sums it up in the exact way you’d hope Danny Brown would sum it up: “Prince wasn’t calling up nobody. People calling him.”
This attitude extends to the way Brown writes: alone, at home, late at night, working toward something even if he doesn’t know what it is yet. Just as it took Brown a few years to find his way to the album that could bear the title Atrocity Exhibition, it also took several years for him to work his way into the music that made it onto the album. The lion’s share of the album’s beats are courtesy of Paul White, and many of them date back to the era surrounding XXX. White would send Brown 50 beats at a time, and Brown eventually had something like 700 Paul White beats on his computer, waiting to be unlocked. “These were beats I had been working on where I just wasn’t sure enough in my songwriting to tackle them the right way that I wanted to,” he explains. (And if some of Atrocity Exhibition sounds out there now, it is indeed difficult to imagine hearing it five years ago, right after XXX.) I ask Brown how he even began to sort through all that nascent material. “Every night at 10, for the last five years of my life,” he says, cracking himself up.
The process he’s referring to is the way he always writes: every night around 10, he’d start putting on beats and seeing what came to him. He never sits down and says, “It’s time to write a song.” “It always comes from a higher place, to be honest with you,” he reflects. “The songs write themselves. A hook get done over this, and before you know it, they all start to come together. Then I’ll just sit on them, and practice them.” Hooks and choruses and lyrics come to him at random moments, when he’s ironing clothes or taking a shower; those are the ones he knows are good. This initial process can take him forever, but once the song starts to cohere for him, he can then knock it out in as little as 30 minutes sometimes. “I’ve been working on it for so long, it’s like prepping yourself,” he says. “It’s like training. Once you get in the ring, you knock it out.”
Just like there are different elements of his personality that Brown delves into for his different voices and styles musically, there’s also a division between him as a performer and a writer that mirrors the division between him as a public and private person. He can’t write on the road, can’t think about the creative process when he’s in that headspace. “It’s too personal to do it anywhere,” he says. He needs to be at home. Out there on the road, he’s in that other mode, he’s the Danny Brown you see running around onstage, inciting parties. “Performing is like boxing,” he says, again returning to a training comparison. “That’s me getting into the ring. Can I do it bigger today? How the game gonna go for me?” The writing process has to stay in the comforts of home, as a more interior process. “That’s gonna last around,” he says of the recorded work. “You see me onstage. But that’s the album.”
Across all this, though, Brown remains an outlier character. He’s one of those outsiders who found his way inside, and just might rearrange the inside a bit to fit around the odd shape he brought into it. Old, in particular, broadened his appeal beyond devout hip-hop heads, and began attracting attention and new fans within the indie world, too. He’s the sort of person who had Ali Shaheed Muhammad as a mentor, collaborated with Purity Ring, had a rap godhead like Kendrick Lamar guest on his album, and named said rap album after an obscure song by a post-punk band from almost four decades ago. Which is to say: He is a rare sort of artist. As he puts it, he’s more “cross-genre” than anything; he moves between worlds and is always just Danny Brown. “It’s still all organic to me. It’s just my life,” he says. “There’s been too much in hip-hop where you’re supposed to be this certain way, you know what I’m saying? I can’t carry a gun and smoke weed and listen to Vampire Weekend? Like, c’mon.”
That’s a major engine behind what Brown does. After he describes the style and production of Atrocity Exhibition as avant-garde, I ask him if chasing that bleeding edge sound is important to him. “Originality is important. If everybody starts trying to do this, I ain’t going to be doing this no more,” he says. After all, there’s that key lyric in “When It Rain”: “You ain’t heard it like this before.”
“Did you feel like a lot of people tried to follow Old?” I ask.
“A lot of people tried, but it don’t really work out too well for ’em,” he says, grinning. It’s a humorous moment, but one that’s also full of calm and self-aware confidence.
At this point, his manager, Dart Parker, jumps in, too: “It’s hard to remember how different those electronic beats [on Old] were. Because everybody’s on shit like that now. It’s really hard to remember, three years ago, how nuts that sounded. It’s progressive hip-hop. That’s what he makes. People say prog rock? This is prog hop.”
“Facts! There you go, Dart, get your genre-naming. We need that,” Brown replies enthusiastically.
There’s a valid point there: When Old came out, people talked about the poppier tracks on the second half, and in the same breath acknowledged how, yes, these were pop songs, but they were Brown’s own fizzling, melting, obscured interpretation. You can take it even further with Atrocity Exhibition: While some of the songs sound more straightforward or catchier on the surface, there’s a great deal of it that sounds just as much like a personalized spin on dark electronic music as it does on hip hop. There are peers Brown looks to as making progressive music within the rap idiom: A$AP Rocky’s last album blew his mind, Kendrick and the TDE crew, Odd Future. But, in general, he characterizes it all as “so straight line.” I ask him what he thinks of that overall. Without missing a beat, he grins and replies, “I think it’s an atrocity exhibition.”
So, one on hand, Atrocity Exhibition could be the album that takes Brown up another level again, solidifies his stardom after the wider success of Old. But it’s also an album that shows him willing to go weirder, more shocking, more challenging. It’s an album born from his core ethos and persona, and all of that means he’ll probably never be a festival headliner of Kendrick or Vampire Weekend scope. He’s one of those unrepentant weirdoes who already connects with many, many more people than might make sense on paper. But it’s hard to picture a mission statement like “When It Rain” becoming a club hit, or catapulting Brown to true celebrity status.
He doesn’t want that. He’s seen it with his friends. (“Rocky can’t go nowhere.”) Brown doesn’t want or need a bodyguard; he likes to go home and return to the hermit life, he likes being able to walk into a Wal-Mart in the middle of the country and not be bothered. This is part of why he returns to Detroit again and again, when moving to Los Angeles or New York might’ve given more opportunities, and sooner in life. “It’s humbling. That’s what keeps me grounded,” he says of his home city. “If I lived in L.A. or New York… my work ethic would be totally different. I’d be partying every night… that’s why I made a conscious decision to never leave. I’d be burning the candle at both ends for sure.”
(In a tangent at the end here, Brown does allow that he could always move to London in the future. The first time he visited, he felt like he’d been there before — the music he loved came from there, the fashion, etc. He thinks he might’ve been born there in a past life. “I was so engulfed in the culture. I dunno. I might be British,” he concludes somewhat hilariously.)
Brown talks a lot about work, and the circumstances that allow for it, and what he’s building with it. Over the years, he’s had plenty of lyrics about mortality. And at 35, his breakthrough and peak have arrived at a later age than many musicians, even in an era where people’s roads to stardom are becoming more winding and wandering. That’s the kind of thing that can put pressure on you: the idea to produce what you can in the time you’re given, like you have to get that body of work out there now because you started a little later than everyone else. That doesn’t seem to impact Brown too much, but he does think about legacy. A lot. “Legacy is the most important thing to me,” he says. “That’s the only thing you leaving behind.” This is a major influence on Brown’s autobiographical writing style. He’s writing a sprawling memoir, album by album. I ask him if he ever regrets putting all of that out there, if he’s shared too much, if people then reduce him too much to this suffering, druggy character that populates some of his best songs.
“It’s almost like me putting out my problems and somebody getting entertainment from that while going through the same thing,” he ventures. “But it makes them feel better because they know somebody like me, who they probably think everything’s all good with because I’m living my dream, is going through the same thing they do. So it’s throwing negative energy out that eventually returns to me positively. That’s the best feeling in the world.”
There’s been too much in hip-hop where you’re supposed to be this certain way, you know what I’m saying? I can’t carry a gun and smoke weed and listen to Vampire Weekend? Like, c’mon.
It’s therapy for him, allowing him to tell stories he couldn’t even tell to some of the people with whom he’s closest. But it’s therapy for the listeners, too. That’s the glue of the fierce devotion artists like Danny Brown attract.
Maybe, when that produces work like Atrocity Exhibition, that’s also what ensures that you’ll always be a little bit the outsider. But when Brown talks about legacy, and when he talks about originality, and when he talks about how you ain’t heard it like this before, he isn’t just talking about the rap world. He isn’t talking about his peers, he isn’t talking about his direct predecessors. “I wouldn’t say I want to be the biggest name, but I want to be mentioned alongside the elite rappers [doing it right now],” he says. Yet it’s fellow Detroit native Jack White who Brown calls his “biggest icon,” citing the way the man went from making lo-fi garage rock in Detroit, to producing a goddamn Beyoncé song. And he’s always chasing “the DBs”: Davids Bowie and Byrne. “I’m following they footsteps,” he says.
The tradition of art-weirdoes who arrive in the pop landscape and leave some permanent, paradigm-shifting mark: That does feel like more of a home for Danny Brown than any specific sub-genre or scene he could have been slotted into over the last several years. After XXX, that might’ve seemed distant. There was that pressure. Don’t drop the ball. Don’t lose the job. Now Brown is more comfortable and confident with himself, able to follow whatever speaking-in-tongues muse he hears, wherever it leads him. “Atrocity Exhibition is about doing what I do,” he says. “That’s what the album’s about to me. That statement. This is Danny Brown’s sound. This is his music. No one else’s.” And when he says those words, his voice is steadier than ever.