Danny Brown begins Old on the defensive. On the first two tracks, “Side A” and “The Return,” he recalibrates his quirky party animal image, reminding his audience that the man he was throughout his 20s isn’t the one they were introduced to on his unlikely age-30 breakout, XXX. “They want that old Danny Brown/ To bag up and sell a whole pound,” he raps on the former song. That’s more directed at the select few who’d known him before the fame, but “The Return,” on the other hand, lets newcomers know that the skinny jeans, squawky voice, and Jimmy-Butler-circa-media-day-2023 hair don’t belong to the soft-ass hipster some had pegged him to be: “See, they think I’m a fuck n****/ But if they ever see me, they might have to duck, n****.”
“The Return” interpolates Outkast’s “Return Of The ‘G,'” a song with similar aspirations. Appearing at the top of the duo’s third album, it dispelled any notion that the ATLiens weren’t still “willin’ to rob, steal, and kill anything that threatens mine,” as Big Boi puts it. Brown’s closer analog is, obviously, André 3000. Also plagued by misconceptions about his personality and background, Outkast’s more flamboyant member spends the song reluctantly reverting to gun talk in reaction to listeners getting “the wrong impression of expression.”
Aquemini, now widely recognized as Outkast’s masterpiece, gets this identity crisis out of the way quickly and then spends the rest of its runtime using André and Big Boi’s pasts and personalities as springboards to diverse, unpredictable territories. Old’s first two tracks are more of a mission statement. Brown made it clear, both in interviews and the tracklist, that the album was divided into two: Side A a more reflective look at the “old” him, and Side B leaning into the turnt-up persona he’d cultivated in the wake of XXX. Despite Old’s nod to Aquemini, it’s actually Brown’s roiling, disjointed Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.
Released 10 years ago this Sunday, Old’s Side A/Side B division makes it the tidiest illustration of duality in Brown’s career, but even on XXX it was clear that his style was frequently at odds with itself. The character of his music was dictated by his vocal delivery (either a pinched, nasal honk or a sullen, soft-spoken grumble), beat selection (bright, hyperactive, and hipster-adjacent on one side, grimey, Dilla-indebted boom-bap on the other), and decision to alternately highlight either the ups or the downs of hedonism. XXX’s tracklist even has similar organization — its front half is dominated by brashness like “I Will,” shit-talk like “Monopoly” and the title track, and iconoclasm like “Die Like A Rockstar” and “Radio Song,” while the six-song stretch from “DNA” to Scrap Or Die” on the back-end rarely finds Brown’s voice above a mumble. In the wake of that breakout album’s acclaim, the divide between the perceived two sides of Brown’s sound only grew wider.
There was little resembling the then-burgeoning EDM wave on XXX, but Brown soon aligned himself with that world, touring with Baauer and A-Trak, releasing standalone singles like the Diplo-inspired “#ExpressYourself” and the Araabmuzik collaboration “Molly Ringwald,” and previewing the Rustie-produced “Side B (Dope Song)” during live sets. At the other end of the spectrum, he released the Black And Brown! EP with veteran Detroit producer/rapper Black Milk, rapped over J Dilla’s “Welcome 2 Detroit,” and released a single produced by Johnson & Johnson (AKA Blu and Mainframe, who were also rumored to be executive producing Brown’s upcoming album). But wait, there’s more: in this interim between albums, Brown also collaborated with indie-pop artists (Purity Ring, Charli XCX), underground hip-hop legends (El-P), experimental dub producers (The Bug), A$AP Mob members (Rocky and Ferg), Chicago drill artists (SD), and Insane Clown Posse.
In the 26 months between XXX and Old, the world was introduced to a rapper with malleable talent and voracious taste, one whose newfound stature had him stretching out in a million directions at once and working with his friends, contemporaries, idols, and everyone in between. It seemed freeing, but also restless. We learned that Brown’s all-time favorite album was Love’s 1967 psychedelic masterwork Forever Changes, and with constant, often contradictory updates on XXX’s follow-up arriving almost bi-weekly, it seemed like that would also be an apt name for Brown’s next release.
After the Johnson & Johnson rumors were resolved, Brown tweeted that his new album was called ODB — an acronym for “Old Danny Brown” inspired by the comparisons to Ol’ Dirty Bastard that he often garnered. He announced that the album was “done” in December 2012, and then threatened to leak it the following August. Finally, after dropping several non-singles, after hyping it up in interviews for months, Brown got his wish and unveiled Old, arguably the make-or-break album of his career.
Critics loved it. Old currently sits at 83/100 on Metacritic — the same score as XXX, but based on 30 reviews rather than the nine the earlier album accrued. Pitchfork awarded Old an 8.7, its 11th-highest score of the year, and later named it the fifth-best album of 2013. This site had it at seventh place for the year.
For everyone who loved XXX and followed Brown’s every move with bated breath in the ensuing two years (myself included), Old largely delivered on the promises of his eclectic taste and electric performances. Side A, mostly produced by smoked-out British cratedigger Paul White and Madlib’s consistently underrated brother Oh No, leaned hard into Brown’s love for psychedelic rock and street rap. He delivered scenes as unflinching and vivid as those on XXX, but with more songcraft and clarity. Side B made good on the EDM/Fools Gold flirtations and matched the experience of Brown’s wildly popular live shows. And despite the clear divide between sides, a throughline was visible: Side A explained the need for the debauchery of Side B; Side B compounded the morning-after demons of Side A. Conceptually and on-paper, Old was an incremental improvement on XXX that offered a roadmap for the rest of Danny Brown’s career.
But a decade later, Old doesn’t feel as essential as its scrappy predecessor or its bleaker, weirder follow-up, 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition. For the last thousand or so words, I’ve written about it as if it’s Brown’s second album, which it is very much not — 2010’s excellent The Hybrid was billed as Brown’s debut, and there’s also nine mixtapes that predate XXX — but I’ve done this because Old has many of the pitfalls that are associated with second albums.
For one, there’s the collaborations. While it was incredible to see Brown connecting with every side of his music taste Venn diagram in between albums, Old’s constant in-roads with buzzing, of-the-moment guest vocalists and producers gives it the post-blow-up problem of being able to work with anyone under the sun but never asking whether I can means I should. In contrast with XXX, whose few collaborations starred fellow underground Detroiters, and Atrocity Exhibition, which hand-picked unexpected names (Kelela, B-Real) to appear in spots that seemed tailor-made for their respective styles, Old goes against type and casts Ab-Soul as a party-starter and Charli XCX as the soundtrack to the come-down. Some pairings really work — Freddie Gibbs’ presence adds swagger to “The Return,” Rustie and Brown are pitch-perfect neon brothers in arms — but more often than not, Old’s guest verses, guest hooks, and deviations from the Paul White/Oh No/Skywlkr beat braintrust serve as distractions rather than tasteful flair.
Then there’s Brown’s writing. On The Hybrid and XXX, he cemented himself as one of hip hop’s best on-topic riffers. He had nonsequiturs for days, but could also rattle off jokes while sticking to a single concept for an entire song (see: “I Will”) or get serious while never sounding preachy (see: “Generation Rx”). Old’s conceptual bent had Brown straying from the topic less than ever, and the sharpness of his pen suffered from time to time. The drug wordplay on Side B is often mind-numbing: “Like Lieutenant Dan, I’m rollin,’” “I’m an activist on Actavis,” “Dippin’ to that Diplo.” And while Side A contains some stunning, open-hearted sentiments — the back-to-back “Torture” and “Lonely” is an incredible “two sides of the same coin” pairing — songs like “Wonderbread” and “Gremlins” are bogged down by storytelling that forsakes vivid details in favor of overarching plots. Whereas Brown’s early releases might’ve had uneven tracklists, and seem to focus more on punchlines than song or album concepts, Old does the opposite of the classic adage and misses the trees for the forest, delivering a well-packaged full experience that looks a little worse under the microscope.
This is, in no way, shape, or form, a bad rap album. It’s more adventurous than most artists dare to get throughout their entire careers, and every strength that Brown showed on his earlier work gets some runway to work with here. In many ways, Old is a necessary step in his career. He needed to get the last vestiges of early 2010s trap-rave out of his system; the writing was on the wall for the downward spiral of Atrocity Exhibition, where he notes that he’s gotten to the point that he “Ain’t gotta buy drugs/ N****s just give ‘em to me.” This is conjecture, but most of Old’s faults seem like the product of unexpectedly blowing up at age 30 and then trying to cram everything you’ve ever wanted to accomplish and experience into the next few years.
Since the whirlwind of Brown’s early 2010s, he slowed down his release pace, got his Bruiser Brigade Records label off the ground, and just earlier this year, got sober. His work since Old — Atrocity Exhibition, 2019’s more understated uknowhatimsayin¿, this spring’s anything-but-understated JPEGMAFIA collaboration Scaring The Hoes, and his usual spread of guest verses mixed in between — has been more focused and precise than Old. Twelve years after XXX, Brown seems incapable of releasing a dud album, but perhaps he needed to spread himself a bit too thin on Old to arrive at the patient, artful point he’s at now.