Danny Brown

XXX

(Fool's Gold; 2011)

By Chet Betz | 7 September 2011

XXX is a filthy brilliant joke of an album—but the question is whether the joke is on us or its creator, Detroit rapper Danny Brown. Because the joke is that this is a rap album by a rapper that cannot tell a lie. It’s the set-up to Jim Carrey’s Liar Liar transferred to rap music and with results that are twenty times more hilarious, moving, disgusting, depressing, arresting, etc. On “Lie4” Brown both questions and exemplifies the necessity of lying in a music genre that basically requires its artists to spend much of their art’s time describing themselves in an appealing or commercially viable fashion—to some extent, fictionalizing their lives. This right after “Radio Song,” which Danny Brown claims is his “radio song” with tongue-in-cheek choral affirmation on the hook and Brown pushing the high-pitched, nasal style prominent on XXX into something not far from Andy Samberg’s Blizzard Man character on SNL.

It’s some bizarre kind of fresh, this insurgent bleating that sometimes tips over into guttural growls, but it also feels very canonical. Brown surveys the outlying paradigms of hip-hop history—the rap court jesters like Flavor Flav or ODB, the miscreant storytellers like Slick Rick, the creeps like Too Short—and boils them down to something essential, then gives that a viciously modern update. It’s not unlike Heath Ledger’s treatment of the Joker archetype, using outlandish character as a vessel for pure performance and a shocking sort of raw emotional truth. Maybe this is why it hits like an anvil drop when Brown practically roars Ledger’s name amidst all the other flared-out stars he mentions on “Die Like a Rockstar.” What Brown does on XXX is outrageously funny and unsettling tragicomedy as intense as Ricky Gervais playing himself; it can be brutally uncomfortable but, yeesh, does it strike a nerve. The closest tonal comparison I can come up with in rap is Kool Keith, but then XXX would be a strong contender for the best Kool Keith record ever, no hyperbole.

Anyone who has ever lobbed the cliché advice of “be yourself” at Danny Brown must have gotten tons more than they bargained for. For sure, Brown is himself all over XXX. And it’s a self that is wrenchingly magnetic, that is both a cunning linguist and a cunnilingus connoisseur and often uses the former talent to boast about the latter (“I Will,” with a mesmerizing beat from Green Ova’s Squadda B), a self that won’t apologize for its misogyny (“Outer Space”), that is addicted and is shattered by that addiction (the opener and title track draws near its close with Brown musing that he turned to drugs, “now these drugs turn my life,” and This Heat-sampling “Adderall Admiral” is just some harrowing shit), a self that skirts schizophrenia by using rap to divide itself into several voices. On “DNA” XXX enters a new phase only hinted at earlier by the sublime “Pac Blood”; Danny Brown’s got more styles going on this record than I’ve heard since Edan’s Beauty and the Beat (2005) or John Smith’s Pinky’s Laundromat (2004). The shock of Brown suddenly adopting a more traditional flow with his voice at a lower octave only accents the straight-faced heartbreak of the chorus, a wobbly horn loop and crashing cymbals trying to keep their shit together as Brown repeats, “It’s in my DNA / ‘cuz my pops like to get fucked up the same way.” Apparently, his moms and fam like to get fucked up the same way, too.

In this closing stretch it becomes clear how masterful a capital-A Album XXX really is. The lion’s share of the production is by Skywlkr, Paul White, and Odd Future alumnus brandUn DeShay, and the first half of this record is them and some others hitting the refresh button on an early Def Jux and even Kutmasta Kurt aesthetic to great effect. But with “DNA” there’s a transition from grimy electro into something a little more ambiguous, jazzy, nuanced—more obviously boom-bap but still in keeping with the dark groove that XXX has established, whilst Brown’s flows and lyrics follow suit or lead the way but are no less impressive than the hysterical displays that happen earlier. DeShay’s beat for “Party All the Time” is a gorgeous marriage of a vibe loop with a percussive track that’s straight-up expressive in the way it allows its incidental sounds to overlap and persist; fittingly, Brown puts aside his typical antics for an understated flow and a saddened look at a broken girl who in another song would be mere object. Wu-Tang influences aside from ODB become clearer a step removed from Brown’s most flamboyant personae; colorful delivery and verbiage akin to Ghostface abounds, and there’s even a whiff of Method Man on “EWNESW,” which features a Quelle beat that sounds pretty Tical (1994) and an incredible second verse from Brown littered with gems like “ate a Lunchable for dinner, nigga, I ain’t frontin’.” Again, his honesty marches forward.

So, in the last act of XXX it seems that through both content and canon Danny Brown retroactively sets the stage—the history, the experiences, the relentless struggle—for the current rap and life game that drives his voice to such a cracked state. It’s like an extended flashback that finally delivers some explanation for Brown’s fucked up present, and it carries on through “Fields” with its genius hook that uses rap meter to describe the spatial desolation of the hood where Brown grew up, and then through the Jeezy by way of Tom Waits anecdotal chew of “Scrap or Die,” on to a finale that brings all the styles back together in a hard-hitting psychedelic rap jam that is utterly bonkers, utterly perfect. It’s not strange that Brown’s two biggest guest spots this year have so far been for the gritty street sling of Random Axe and the satirical nerd-rap of Das Racist; he belongs wholly to both underground realms, and he’s becoming a king in both.

For Brown isn’t just reconstructing the black sheep rapper paradigm, he’s reinventing it. And the new paradigm? Dense, meaningful paroxysm. Blistering ugliness and buried bits of beauty co-mingle in a word flow so harshly effusive it’s like expression bound to asphyxiation. “The last ten years I’ve been so fucking stressed / Tears in my eyes / Let me get this off my chest / Thoughts of no success got a nigga tastin’ death,” gasps Brown on closing thesis statement “30” before bringing the end rhyme home with the record title—petite mort swag.

The way Brown gets the last laugh on this album is the fact that he’s not really laughing. And the joke is on us for thinking that what we had here was just another crude if clever rap record. In the end XXX is something much more complex, challenging, and rewarding than a dirty joke. It’s real life put to unreal rhymes; the stroke by which it eviscerates the rap hominem of “keepin’ it real” is the same stroke that makes it the realest thing out there, stumbling forward through gorged rap knowledge and gross personal confession and grubby-rich vocabulary towards catharsis. “Rhymes so real thought I wrote it in Pac blood,” spits Brown and it’s to the credit of XXX that that line makes perfect sense in its context—the context of a new underground rap classic.

:: foolsgoldrecs.com/xxx