Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Danny Brown Quaranta


“This rap shit done saved my life and fucked it up at the same time.” That’s the kind of insight that a rapper, or even a fan, might reach after months of intensive therapy. It’s also the very first thing that Danny Brown says on his new album. If you’ve been listening to Danny Brown for the last decade-plus, then the statement isn’t exactly a surprise. Brown has always made music about trauma, partying, and the futile scramble to process trauma through partying. But it’s especially intense to hear him lay it all like that at the very top of Quaranta, the XXX sequel that he’s been promising for forever. That first line is the thesis statement. Everything that follows is the evidence.

It’s actually been more than 10 years since Danny Brown released XXX, the album that made him into a kind of internet star. Before then, Brown was a regional Detroit rap phenom, known for his electric-shock yelp and his unconventional style. XXX came out when Brown was turning 30, and its title was an allusion to his age and his appetites — Xanax, sex, whatever else you might be offering him. Brown made his national breakthrough when he was already a fully-grown adult, but that didn’t necessarily make things easier for him. In the years that followed, Brown became a party-starting road dog, rapping lyrics about the abject squalor of his youth over dance beats that might’ve gone over the heads of tons of the kids in his audience. This wasn’t exactly a recipe for a smooth, seamless transition into middle age.

If you listen to the last five Danny Brown albums in sequence, it sounds like an absolute model of graceful aging within rap. Brown has gradually moved away from the frantic yelp of his younger years, sinking into denser instrumentals and making connections with rap legends and elders without losing his adventurous edge. He’s never made a bad record, or even a mediocre one. Listening to Quaranta, though, it’s clear that Brown isn’t happy with where he is in the world. He’s depressed, lonely, freaked out at his own self-destructive tendencies, and worried that his career is grinding to a halt. To hear him tell it, that was where Brown was when he recorded Quaranta. He’s doing better now, so Quaranta feels like a time-capsule portrait of a great rapper teetering on the edge of oblivion.

According to a recent Guardian profile, Danny Brown hit bottom, checked into rehab, and got clean earlier this year — all after finishing work on Quaranta. In fact, The Guardian reports that the album has been done, fully locked, for nearly three years. (Warp claims that the finished masters were turned in this year.) The album was originally supposed to be called XXXX — the word Quaranta is Italian for Forty — and Brown is now 42. Earlier this year, he accused his label and his manager of holding back the record’s release: “They do that to try to make you go broke. And then you can do whatever they want you to do at that point.”

To hear him tell it, the label was mad that he and JPEGMAFIA had made Scaring The Hoes, the joint album that they released earlier this year. (Warp denies this, too.) They finished that album after Brown finished work on Quaranta, and Brown says that he was in an even darker place when working on Scaring The Hoes: “When we were making it, it was really hard to work with me. I was at my drunkest at that time… I would love to make another album, but I would understand if he never wanted to work with me again.” Working on those two records, Brown says that he wasn’t especially concerned with his own survival: “So much fentanyl was going around at the time, so you were risking it every time you got a bag. So I was making it with that in my head, too, like: ‘Maybe this might be my last album’ kinda shit, you know?” (When Danny Brown and JPEGMAFIA toured together this past summer, Brown was reportedly sober.)

Danny Brown has been a great rapper for a very long time, and when you look at his 2023 from a distance — two vastly different records coming out in the same 12 months — it looks like a career year. Scaring The Hoes was charged-up and dizzy, while Quaranta is heavy and introspective, but they both have fully realized sounds and styles. It’s extremely rare for a rapper in his forties to still have that kind of juice — especially when he’s years removed from his viral breakout and he when never really found mainstream fame. Brown’s endurance should be a cause for celebration. He should be proud. On Quaranta, he doesn’t sound proud.

On the new album’s title track, Brown is wracked with doubt, asking himself hard questions: “Look at you: 40, still doing your shit/ When you gon’ stop? When God gon’ make you quit?” Later on, he talks about rap like it’s a dead-end job: “Probably never win a Grammy or chart on the charts/ Should I still keep going or call it a day? All night, thinkin’ ‘bout the mistakes I made.” The hook of that song, “Hanami,” is about Brown feeling thankful that he’s survived some difficult times, but he still sounds stuck on his own fuckups.

One of those fuckups is a relationship that ended badly. When he reflects on that, he quotes one of the Scarface verses from the Geto Boys’ “My Mind Playing Tricks On Me.” Elsewhere, when he freaks out about the gentrification of Detroit — “White folks popping out the blue/ They done tore that down and made it into a Whole Foods/ Landlord looking for a payday/ Now its rented scooters where we use to slang yay” — he does it by quoting and sampling Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy.” This rap shit is Danny Brown’s native tongue. It’s how he processes the world.

As a pure rap record, Quaranta is masterful. Even when he’s at his lowest, Danny Brown remains a magnetic presence. His wordplay sings: “I used to sell a bit/ But i don’t fuck around no more, I’m celibate.” His storytelling remains vivid, especially when it comes to what he calls his “trauma-dump” flashbacks to his childhood: “Late night in the kitchen, hear ’em always fussing/ Got my ass beat, I ain’t even do nothing/ Seen her crying in the kitchen, and I don’t know why/ Caught my aunt smokin’ crack, and she got a black eye.”

Danny Brown’s incredible ear for music is as sharp as ever. The beats on Quaranta come from lots of different producers — the Alchemist, Quelle Chris, old collaborator Paul White, jazz drummer and guest-rapper Kassa Overall. But those tracks all work together as a cohesive whole. They’re full of echoes, off-time lopes, and ambient discordance — a musical equivalent to the murky haze where Danny Brown’s head apparently was while he was making the album. Brown raps over most of it in his lower-register grumble — the voice that he uses when he’s talking about his hardest times. The frayed yap of his older records is mostly gone here. He tends to use the latter voice to talk about fun. Here, he’s not having fun.

Quaranta is not a long album, but it’s expansive enough to get lost in. Danny Brown has a rare gift for translating his pain into music that’s not remotely punishing — music that can make for a deep headphones experience even when you’re not processing the words. That gift has probably complicated his life in ways both predictable and not. The profile in The Guardian shows a Danny Brown who’s getting his shit together — living in the Austin suburbs, reconnecting with his love of performing, doting on his pet chihuahuas. He’s been though it, and he’s turned that experience into another endlessly compelling piece of music. Maybe the rap life hasn’t always been good to Danny Brown, but rap is better when he’s still making records like this.

Quaranta is out 11/17 on Warp.

Other albums of note out this week:

• André 3000’s New Blue Sun
• Dolly Parton’s ROCKSTAR
• 2 Chainz & Lil Wayne’s Collegrove 2
• Frost Children’s Hearth Room
• Daniel Bachman’s When The Roses Come Again
• Racetraitor’s Creation And The Timeless Order Of Things
• Blockhead’s The Aux
• Mo Troper’s Troper Sings Brion
• RXKNephew & Harry Fraud’s Life After Neph
• Ali Sethi & Nicolás Jaar’s Intiha
• Vince Clarke’s Songs Of Silence
• Spencer Zahn’s Statues II
• Homeboy Sandman’s I Can’t Sell These Either
• The Polyphonic Spree’s Salvage Enterprise
• Juliana Hatfield’s Juliana Hatfield Sings ELO
• The Dwarves’ Concept Album
• Madness’ Theatre Of The Absurd Presents C’Est La Vie
• Jaime Wyatt’s Feel Good
• Orbiting Human Circus’ Quartet Plus Two
• Neil Hamburger’s Seasonal Depression Suite
• Dragon Inn 3 – It’s Christmas EP
• Jolie Laide’s self-titled album
• Bastards Of Soul’s Give It Right Back
• Little Man Tate’s Welcome To The Rest Of Your Life
• halfnoise’s City Talk
• Deliquesce’s Cursed With Malevolence
• Maul’s Desecration And Enchantment
• Nite Fleit’s Did I Stutter
• Altars Of The Moon’s The Colossus And The Widow
• H31R’s HeadSpace
• Trinity The Tuck’s Trinity Ruins Christmas: The Musical
• Teni’s Tears Of The Sun
• Emeli Sandé’s How Were We To Know
• Mom Jeans’ Bear Market
• Rich Amiri’s Ghetto Fabulous
• Obroa-Skai’s Science Progresses One Funeral At A Time
• Frog’s Grog
• DJ Manny’s Hypnotized
• Toosii’s Jaded
• Billy Porter’s Black Mona Lisa
• Steve Aoki’s HiROQUEST: Double Helix
• Water From Your Eyes’ Crushed By Everyone remix album
• Johanna Warren’s The Rockfield Sessions Vol. 1
• John Medeski’s The Curse soundtrack
• MJ Lenderman’s And The Wind (Live And Loose!) live album
• Iron & Wine’s Who Can See Forever live soundtrack album
• OTF (Only The Family)’s Nightmares In The Trenches compilation
• The Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds & Snakes soundtrack
• The Learn To Relax! A Tribute To Jehu compilation
• Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (Drumless Edition)
• Bob Dylan’s The Complete Budokan 1978
• Acetone’s I’m still waiting box set
• SSD’s The Kids Will Have Their Say reissue
• Speedy Ortiz’s Major Arcana (10th Anniversary Edition)
• Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s II (10th Anniversary Edition)
• Jewel’s Spirit (25th Anniversary Edition)
• The Kinks’ The Journey – Part 2
• Evanescence’s Fallen (20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)
• Josh Groban’s Closer (20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)
• Bryan Ferry’s Mamouna Deluxe
• Enhyphen’s Orange Blood mini-album
• Kurt Vile’s Back To Moon Beach EP
• Julie Byrne’s Julie Byrne With Laugh Cry Laugh EP
• Juan Waters’s Limbo EP
• Car Colors’ Old Death EP
• Spiritual Poison’s Incorporeal EP
• Kelly Moran’s Vesela EP

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