In April, American rapper Danny Brown entered rehabilitation. This is not uncommon among artists in different genres. What sets Brown’s situation apart is that his entire career, spanning over ten years, focused on selling drugs and partying excessively after giving up dealing.
He has stood out in a highly competitive field. If there were a poet laureate of joyous, nihilistic excess, the witty and humorous Brown would hold the title. Even in his most seemingly uncomplicated work, like his song “Smokin’ & Drinkin'” from his 2013 album Old, he celebrates the act of getting completely wasted. Tonight, this song becomes a hedonistic back-and-forth with the energetic and packed crowd, shouting “Drinkin’ and smokin’!”
All of us are very excited to finally meet our “faraway relative from Detroit” in person. He refers to himself as such and is accompanied by his DJ, Skywlkr. He is dressed in a black leather biker jacket and a peaked cap, and maintains his punk attitude despite his time in rehab. Not only that, but his high energy levels during his hour-long performance showcase the positive effects of living a clean lifestyle, as he plays a mix of old and new tracks.
Brown, who has recently dealt with overdoses from fellow musicians Mac Miller, Juice Wrld, and Lil Peep, is not only still alive but also out of rehab. He can now proudly take credit for creating two of the most captivating albums of 2023: Scaring the Hoes (with Jpegmafia, released in March) and Quaranta (released last month).
There is context here. “Dad rap” – music made by older, often leftfield rappers – has had a phenomenal year, with stellar offerings from Atlantan powerhouse Killer Mike (half of Run the Jewels), cult New York sophisticate Billy Woods (across two albums), a vault album from Danger Mouse and Jemini, as well as André 3000’s surprise flute suite. But Brown’s double whammy still stands out.
The first song of the night is Quaranta’s introspective title track, featuring arpeggiating guitars and a spaghetti western feel. In it, he proclaims, “This genre of rap has both saved and ruined my life.” Despite his reputation for being wild, Brown’s body of music often includes reflective and emotional commentary on its implications. His breakthrough album, XXX (2011), marked the 30th year of the unconventional rapper and delved into his relationship with Xanax.
Brown’s 2016 outing, released on UK electronic label Warp, cemented two defining facts about him. Atrocity Exhibition – named after a Joy Division song – made plain how omnivorous his musical tastes were, and how his hyperactive raps could fit over anything from digital dance music to industrial noise.
Furthermore, in tracks like “Ain’t It Funny” and “Sublime Tonight”, Brown openly reflects on his role as a jester, portraying himself as a troubled rapper for the entertainment of the public. Rather than being criticized for his actions, he was embraced by those who could have held him accountable, ultimately becoming a spectacle. With its mix of ecstasy and harshness, the song “When It Rain” from the album Atrocity Exhibition highlights the connection between drug use and societal decay, showcasing Brown’s talents as a “murder music orchestrator”.
Everything we hear tonight is thrown into stark relief by Brown’s hard reset into sobriety. Written over the pandemic and marking his 40th year, the candid and hard-hitting Quaranta documents his bouncing around rock bottom, counting all he has lost: he had descended into solitary chemical abuse after the breakup of a long-term relationship.
As they awaited the clearance of their samples, Brown and fellow unconventional artist Jpegmafia collaborated on the release of Scaring the Hoes. The high-energy project featured dial-up internet sounds, porn samples, and unexpected musical shifts, generating an electric atmosphere that had the audience fully engaged. The duo also embarked on a US tour this summer, further solidifying their partnership. Fans were left wanting more, with many hoping for a joint performance by Danny and Peggy (the nicknames of the two artists).
The name of the album is based on a popular online joke about unsuccessful methods of attracting women. Despite its sexist connotations, Danny and Peggy have transformed the phrase into a rebellious and defiant stance against mainstream rap.
During the beginning of the title track, we all participate in quick handclaps while listening to a simple arrangement of just a drum kit and saxophone. Brown jokingly questions the absence of Auto-Tune and demands his aux cord back. On “Jenn’s Terrific Vacation,” a song about gentrification in Detroit, the deep sub bass has a profound impact on us, causing a shift within.
Jpegmafia’s ear-melting production reflects the altered, manic states Brown raps about. But it’s the deranged joy in this often apocalyptic-sounding music that shines through. And Brown clearly doesn’t need any assistance, pharmaceutical or otherwise, to be one of the most exciting hip-hop practitioners around.