Earlier this year, Danny Brown sought treatment at a rehabilitation facility. He explains, “After my aunt passed away, my family asked me for money to cover her funeral expenses. I didn’t have the funds and I didn’t know how to tell them. They knew I had money, but I had spent it recklessly on drugs and alcohol. I felt like a disappointment.”
The rapper’s lowest point did not occur in the mentioned instance. While living in his hometown of Detroit in 2020, he was fully aware of the risk of consuming fentanyl-laced drugs, a potent synthetic opioid, yet he appeared indifferent. “I reached a point where I was essentially contemplating suicide,” he reveals.
This year should have been straightforwardly successful for Brown, one of the US’s most distinctive rap voices: a career-galvanising sixth solo album, Quaranta, comes out this month, and Scaring the Hoes, an album made with fellow rap tearaway Jpegmafia and released in March, is a shoo-in for end-of-year “best of” lists. But the 42-year-old has also been navigating a new relationship with fame, creativity and the swirl of drugs, alcohol and wild behaviour that have defined his public image for the past 10 years.
Daniel Dewan Sewell, known by his stage name Brown, is recounting his experiences from his new residence in the suburban area of Austin, Texas. This is a significant change from his hometown of Detroit, which has colder weather. As I enter his home, it gives off an aura of immaculate domesticity with scented candles, delicate orchids, and anthuriums neatly displayed on slatted plant stands. The living room boasts a spacious L-shaped sofa and two chihuahuas named Ditto and Samson. When a delivery of barbecue brisket and sausage arrives, Brown generously feeds most of his portion to Ditto.
In 2021, he relocated to this area to be with his significant other, whom he was in a long-distance relationship with. He also wanted to be near the studio where he produces his weekly comedy call-in podcast, The Danny Brown Show. Another significant factor was leaving Detroit.
As a child, Brown grew up in a close family environment, spending much of his time playing video games. His father, who was a DJ, instilled in him a love for music, while his mother introduced him to the works of Dr. Seuss and fostered his interest in rhyming. However, as he got older and his parents separated, his life became more exposed to the outside world.
In 2012, he told Complex magazine that he began selling drugs because his friends were doing it and he believed it would provide material for his rap lyrics. However, he was arrested multiple times and served eight months in prison. This experience only fueled his determination to become a successful rapper, using his music to depict the wild and troubled lifestyle of those on the outskirts of society. His music, filled with debauchery, served as a way for him to process his own traumatic experiences. In the midst of economic turmoil and ongoing wars, his brand of hedonistic nihilism provided a stark contrast to the flashy and extravagant world of mainstream rap.
His debut album, XXX, released in 2011, was named after the Xs imprinted on Xanax pills and his age of 30. Brown was fully aware of his aging in a youth-dominated industry and intentionally emphasized this fact. His distinct voice, with its nasal tone, raspy quality, and sharpness akin to a popped blister, immediately captured attention.
“I embraced all the obstacles that were preventing me from getting a record deal,” he explains, including his age, thin physique, missing teeth, and backcombed hairstyle. Brown was a key figure in the rise of a new style of rap, characterized by its hazy, off-kilter, and heavily drug-influenced sound. Other artists in this movement included the Awful Records group from Atlanta, as well as emo-rap artists like Lil Peep (who tragically passed away in 2017 due to an accidental overdose of Xanax and fentanyl) and popular chart-toppers Future and Lil Uzi Vert.
In 2019, Brown reached the height of his artistic abilities with his fifth album uknowhatimsayin¿. Q-Tip, a musical inspiration to Brown, served as executive producer – a rare occurrence. Brown established himself as both a strange rebel and a traditionalist in hip-hop, a balance he had been navigating for nearly ten years.
Afterwards, as Brown approached the age of 40, he ended his relationship with his long-term partner and his celebratory tour was cancelled due to the pandemic. He was financially and emotionally depleted. “It was a difficult time. But the only way I could move past it was to focus on making more music. I had to get back in the studio because when things opened up again, I needed to be ready,” he reflects, acknowledging that he was running on empty and avoiding his problems. He relocated from the home he shared with his ex and their cats (she kept the cats) to a luxurious penthouse in the downtown area closer to his studio.
Making music had become an excuse to treat himself by getting wasted. He looks down into his lap as he takes a pull on his vape and arranges his thoughts. “I’m in this nice-ass apartment, it was like four bedrooms, but I’m lonely as fuck. It got to the point I was just getting fucked up, every day, by myself.” He would get through a bottle of spirits a day, topped up with a smörgåsbord of cocaine, pills, mushrooms, weed or whatever else was on offer.
In the music video for Ain’t It Funny, directed by Jonah Hill in 2017, Brown portrays a sitcom character who is addicted to crack and desperately seeking assistance while a laugh track plays in the background. Viewing the video now seems particularly relevant. Brown recalls his experience in a Detroit penthouse, where every day was filled with nonstop partying and constant hangovers. He describes it as his lowest point, constantly feeling sick and vomiting.
Quaranta emerged from a place of rock bottom. It serves as a raw and scarred reflection on life at the bottom of a bottle, acting as a detox and spiritual successor to XXX. The title, meaning 40 in Italian, also alludes to the Covid quarantines and the lonely isolation of Brown’s unraveling in his luxurious penthouse. The opening track, titled the same as the album, starts with a confessional tone accompanied by melancholic spaghetti western-style guitars. Brown’s voice is now calm and measured, a far cry from the high-pitched frenzy of his earlier years. In a 2013 interview with The Guardian, he shared that this change in voice signifies his shift towards more serious and dramatic themes. Quaranta can be described, in Brown’s own words, as a low-voice album. He explains that during its creation, he was constantly aware of the risks involved in using fentanyl, a highly dangerous drug prevalent at the time. This realization adds a sense of urgency and warning to the album as Brown contemplates the possibility of it being his last. Ultimately, Quaranta presents a dichotomy between Brown’s departure and his own self-preservation.
The completion of Quaranta took nearly three years. During this time, Brown believed that his record label, Warp, was neglecting him and that his management was intentionally trying to harm his career. He even mentioned these frustrations while under the influence on his podcast and encouraged his followers to harass his manager and flood social media with the hashtag #FreeDannyBrown (a ploy to motivate himself to enter rehab). In the meantime, he collaborated with Jpegmafia and produced Scaring the Hoes, a harsh and intense mix of distorted drums, synthesizers, and drug-induced themes.
Brown admits that collaborating on the album was a challenge for him due to his heavy drinking at the time. There were instances where he would be too intoxicated to work for an entire weekend, but there were also moments where he was able to produce five songs in a single day. While he would be interested in creating another album together, he acknowledges that his collaborator may not want to work with him again.
During the summer tour, Brown was sober and rode in a separate car following the tour bus for his own well-being rather than any personal issues. Small moments, such as hearing fans sing his lyrics back to him, had a different impact on him. He shares, “Being on stage started to become enjoyable again. Performing sober became therapeutic, seeing the crowd happy and having a good time. Their energy transferred to me and it felt like I was getting my daily fix.” In his daily life, he receives simpler forms of feedback, like proudly showing his app that tracks over 200 days of being alcohol-free, a streak he hopes to continue.
He is not dwelling on his artistic limitations either. He compares music-making to a difficult level in a video game. In the past, he would stay up all night trying to conquer it, but now he knows he can step away, get some rest, and most likely succeed on his first attempt the next morning.
Brown is still cautious about Quaranta being a pivotal moment and has concerns about how his newfound calmness may impact his artistic productivity. He shares, “I’ve witnessed many artists become sober and then their music suffers.” However, being sober has brought him a newfound sense of patience and outlook: “With the release of this album and reflecting on the struggles I faced while creating it, it’s like getting a happy ending in a movie. I can see where I am in my life at this moment.”
The record label Warp Records released Quaranta on November 17th.