How He Keeps it Real & Surreal
by J.J Shale
An urgent, wounded yowl.
This is how I would describe the most famous style of delivery employed by the rapper Danny Brown. It's the one you'll find on songs like "Outer Space" (from 2011's XXX) or "Adderall Admiral" (also from XXX). It's the one which manages to simultaneously sound ferocious and terrified, which manages to make many first-time listeners frown and then skip to a different artist.
And that's what I did. My introduction to the Detroit-born prodigy left me utterly bewildered. I couldn't understand it. His voice was incomparable to anything else I had listened to before in hip-hop (with the exception, perhaps of Ol' Dirty Bastard): not gravelly or measured but instead gleeful, high-pitched and panicky. It was almost demonic. I think I turned the track I heard ("When It Rain" via 2016's Atrocity Exhibition) off before it had even touched the one-minute mark. I should say here that with regards to music, I am someone who is generally not afflicted by indecision. I know whether I'm going to appreciate somebody's stuff after an unreasonably short amount of time. And so, informed by this, I moved quickly on to another song, another artist, reflecting as I did that Brown was probably not someone I would be revisiting.
But then about half an hour later, I came back to "When It Rain." I'm still unsure as to the reason for doing so. Listening to it again, I could feel myself being conquered by feelings of fascination towards the track. Not just the voice either, but its mad, charging instrumentals and surreal, doomsday lyrics. The images carried within it are unfailingly apocalyptic; a flashing bombardment of meaningless violence, self-destruction and smoke-dressed cityscapes. Frenzied poetry spat over a fizzling and abrasive beat. I listened to the song again. And again. And again. I explored the rest of his discography. I was hooked. I even started to relish that weird voice.
In the years since, I've combed through pretty much every release Brown has made. The quality is so consistent it almost starts to become alarming. Even a considerably older album, such as 2010's The Hybrid, is bursting with brilliant lines - lines that oscillate between being either sharply funny or flat-out unsettling. Due to this, it's impossible to enter the songs with any trace of expectation. You're aware that it could go either way; you could be plunged into a stomping club tune or confronted with a bleak personal tale about selling crack to a pregnant woman (in "Greatest Rapper Ever" (from The Hybrid), he actually manages to combine both of these elements).
Throughout the course of his albums, Brown both embraces and rejects the classic archetype of the rapper; appearing to be just as eager to brag about his success and talent as to shakily reveal his psychic damage. On "Hell for It," the track that closes out Atrocity Exhibition, his latest, the first verse opens with him indicting himself as a broken, Vampiric figure ("When I look I cannot see/ Reflection in the mirror") and concludes with the triumphant reassertion that he is in fact ‘The greatest that's alive.' It could be argued that to swing so sharply from one emotional extreme to another is somewhat of a contradiction. I say that isn't a contradiction- I say that it is realism, an honest representation of a human being and an individual.
This touches upon something that I view to be one of the most significant aspects of Danny Brown's work. We live in an age in which there is a ridiculous desire for artists to also function as social critics. They are prodded incessantly by writers to conform to a kind of vague moralism; wherein the main purpose of a piece of art is not to thrill but instead to grapple with issues or (even worse) fix them. Danny Brown does not try to fix anything. The world he depicts within his music is an internal one. If he wants to address drugs, he raps about his own experiences with it: the restless, ecstatic, desperate times he spent dealing and consuming substances. Rather than arrogantly electing to place himself at a higher perspective than everyone else, he approaches topics from the ground level. We hear how he and his uncle used to break into abandoned buildings to harvest copper wires in "Scrap or Die" (2011). We see him getting mugged as youngster whilst walking out to buy some carbs in the climax of "Wonderbread" (2013). We witness the excited evenings penning lyrics on stimulants (2016's "Lost" or the previously mentioned "Adderall Admiral") and the subsequent sweaty, tortuous nights coming down from them ("Downward Spiral," 2016).
There's some irony to be found here. Despite his reputation as rap's wild-man and its crazy and colourful outsider, what really infuses Danny Brown's music with meaning is how rooted it is in reality. He's not interested in artifice. He's interested in the real world, sprawling and unvarnished.
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