“Without these guys I wouldn’t be able to take two years to make an album like this,” Danny Brown told the crowd gathered for listening session at Spotify’s cavernous Manhattan office on Monday night, referring to both the founders of his label Fool’s Gold—Nick Catchdubs and A-Trak—and his new album, the proudly defiant and deeply personal Old. Standing on a makeshift stage with a drink in his hand and his black leather jacket on, he looked both slightly out of place and totally at peace. Even while introducing a frank and daring album at the headquarters of a billion dollar tech company, he controls the room.
In the two years since the now 32-year-old Detroit-born rapper dropped 2011’s galvanizing XXX, a lot has changed. For one thing, Old is an album that builds on the introspective and experimental leanings of the more hedonistic XXX, pushing Brown’s squawking flow into newer, even more psychedelic terrain. But mostly, he’s looking backward and inward, examining harrowing and personal events from his past with the benefit of hindsight and the experience that comes with age.
“At that time I was a little impressionable,” says Brown about his youthful self the next day during a phone conversation with XXL. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but the only reason I did know was I had so many people around me talking negative. I was in a place where nobody had any options so a lot of my friends wanted me to stick around and sell drugs with them.”
Brown ultimately did end up selling drugs for a period of time, even spending some time in jail. But like many enterprising artists before him, Brown was able to take his experiences in the drug game and apply them to his career in the music industry. “To me it’s no different than when I was selling crack,” he explains. “If I didn’t sell crack before I’d probably be learning some shit, but to me it’s the exact same shit. So I just applied what I learned then and I use it now.”
Brown is a seasoned pro at this point, traveling to New York for press events ahead of the album’s release before turning around and crossing the border to Canada for a show the next day. “A lot of people can’t wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning and get on a flight,” he points out. “A lot of people can’t sit down for hours and hours driving from city to city and be patient about it.”
That willingness to be patient is part of what makes Old such a compelling and complicated album. Instead of quickly capitalizing on the buzz of XXX, Brown and Fool’s Gold have allowed the excitement around the project to build organically, giving Brown the room to discover the type of album he wanted to make in the process. Despite some public conflicts with the label prior to the album’s release, Brown has nothing but positive things to say about his experience with them. They let him make an album that reflects his eclectic taste but still draws on the classic hip-hop records that inspired him as a kid.
“They were just talking about their neighborhoods,” he says when asked about his rap heroes like Nas and Spice 1. “It was like they were just the centerpiece of what was going on around them. It wasn’t like they were just talking about what they were doing, they noticed the world. That’s the same thing I do now.”
Whether it’s picking up lessons from Nas about how to interpret the world, storing up patience for when projects get delayed, or figuring out that the rap game is the same as the crack game, Danny Brown has applied a lot of his life experiences toward making this album work. With Old, his life lessons are paying dividends. —Dan Jackson