“Time is a mind construct,” said Prince in a typically eccentric interview with the Guardian back in 2011. For an artist like Prince the concept of time is nothing more than a mental nuisance, a brief roadblock on the path to transcendence, but for Danny Brown time is a prism to view a whole career through. With 2011′s XXX, a gleefully vulgar and often melancholy ode to turning 30, Brown reinvigorated his career by becoming the yammering id of Internet rap underground, a genre obliterating oral sex enthusiast with a taste for Adderall, an ear for Bob James and Fleet Foxes samples, and a haircut out of a children’s cartoon. Despite the mixtape’s moments of drug-sniffing lunacy and toe-curling ecstasy, it was an album about being at war with maturity. Now, with his latest album, Old, Brown is wearing a military uniform on the cover: The battle is far from over.
Even the gap between the Detroit rapper’s latest projects—about two years—is revealing. While most rappers who drop a momentum-building mixtape rush to follow it up with another equally hot tape, Brown instead spent the last couple years playing shows with like-minded artists like Kitty and Trash Talk, filming poignant videos about the passage of time and releasing one-off tracks that pushed the limits of his warped, kinetic sound. He was taking his time. The results of that patience is an album that revisits many of the same themes, moods and addictions of XXX but with a sharper focus and a stronger sense of urgency. “Tryna get this shit off, the winter, we snuck in,” raps Brown on the album’s opening track “Side A (Old).” “Won’t live for anything, but might die for nothing.”
Where XXX began with the rip-roaring, drug-filled fatalism of “Die Like A Rockstar” and “Pac Blood” before transitioning into more reflective material like “DNA” and “Scrap Or Die” in the second half, Old flips the script. Here, the first half of the album resembles a psychedelic cityscape out of Judge Dredd, all grizzled guitar tones and crashing drums courtesy of frequent Brown producer Paul White and Alchemist collaborator Oh No. Brown fills the record’s first half with novelistic details and startling observations. There’s a song called “Torture” where Brown recalls seeing a crime boss’ pitbulls lick peanut butter off a woman’s vagina. Later, in the same verse, he talks about watching a crackhead light a rock off a stove, almost burning his lip off in the process. It’s followed by a track called “Lonely” where he identifies himself as a “hipster by heart” before going on to craft a stark but hopeful narrative about smoking alone and bettering yourself. Though the album is littered with high profile guests from the hip-hop world (ScHoolboy Q, A$AP Rocky) and beyond (Purity Ring), its most powerful moments are when Brown retreats completely into his own headspace.
Brown positions himself as an oppositional figure at various points in the album, embracing his role as the rare hip-hop outsider who has the rapt attention of a young, impressionable audience. On the haunting “Gremlins,” he tells a vivid tale about a young man lost in a haze of drugs, empty sex and designer clothes, but where in the past he might let the story speak for itself, he now becomes more than a passive observer. It’s in these moments that Brown’s skills as a writer shine through, as he offers asides that critique the protagonist of his own story. “Listening to 2 Chainz, ain’t thinking about college,” he raps, “I wonder if he knew that 2 Chainz went to college/I wonder if he knew that would that change his mind?/Guess that’s something we’ll find in due time.”
Brown is an extremely self-conscious artist and the structure of Old reflects that. Remember: This is a guy who once told Pitchfork he made XXX with the intention of getting great reviews. Old is arranged like XXX was: 19 tracks split in a digestible diptych. The second half ditches the muddy prog-swamp of White and Oh No for the festival-ready synth-fountains of producers like SKYWLKR, Rustie and Fool’s Gold label head A-Trak. Some might view these frenzied, chaotic songs to be jarring after the gnarled introspection of tracks like “25 Bucks” and “Clean Up,” but album’s second half has a cleansing quality to it, with tracks like “Dip,” “Handstand” and “Kush Coma” providing the pounding EDM catharsis the more contemplative first half lacks. Even old people need to party, yet Brown doesn’t downplay the hardships that come with that lifestyle.
In a year that’s seen aging rappers in both the mainstream (Jay Z, Kanye West) and underground (J-Zone, Ka) confront the concept of their own mortality with varying degrees of honesty and depth, Old might be the most impressive yet. Brown displays real bravery in his willingness to merge the sacred with the profane, the independent with the arena-ready, the old with the new. As the binaries of rap continue to collapse, Brown looks less like an outcast and more like a trailblazer. It feels like time is on his side.