Old finds Danny Brown at a crossroads. The Detroit rapper is torn between two poles, the old and the new, their orbits pulling at both the direction of his music and his lifestyle. Neatly divided into Side A and Side B, the record maps this moment in Brown’s career.
Side A, as he told Clash, responds to all those asking “where that ‘Old’ Danny Brown shit at?” Opening track “Side A (Old)” offers to reprise the more conventional styles of The Hybrid (2010), whose Detroit-repping “New Era” it samples, and the Detroit State of Mind series (2007-10). But Brown cautions that returning to this style would take him back to a lifestyle now happily left behind, a lifestyle of Detroit poverty and selling dope to support his family. Returning to that style, he warns, might mean having to “sell a whole pound, … go and get my braids back … bring them AKs back.”
Ignoring this warning, “The Return” unites Brown and Freddie Gibbs to carry out “the return of the gangster.” Opening lines cool and menacing, Brown raps, “see they think I’m a fuck nigga, but if they ever see me then they might have to duck nigga.” Yet this past self, like the others reprised on Side A, sits uncomfortably with the rapper. “Fuck a hipster, squeeze a trigger,” says Danny the gangster, only to identify himself, a “hipster by heart,” as the figure in the crosshairs when he turns solitary thinker on “Lonely.” Side A finds Brown collecting a whole raft of his past selves but also keeping his distance from them. “Niggas want that real, want that old Danny Brown,” he says, “but nigga I’m like chill.”
Cycling through other old Danny Browns, Paul White’s fairytale-esque “Wonderbread” and the dreamlike, Purity Ring-accompanied “25 Bucks” reveal a young boy “trapped in the trap,” struggling to get by. With casual horror, “Gremlins” reveals a Danny who knows guys who “popped a bitch on cam” and “turned porches to smoke screens.” The Oh No-produced “Torture,” Side A’s stand-out track, further pushes the emotional intensity. Recounting seeing “another dope fiend beat another with a hammer,” Brown’s remarkably versatile delivery runs cold, despondent, almost dead-eyed. If you were to “look in my mind and see the horrors, all the shit that I’ve seen,” he wagers, you too would be “desensitized to a lot of things.”
Desensitization takes place through the drugs pervading the universe of Side A. They both perpetuate its horrors but also provide moments of release. “Probably need a shrink, can’t get a wink, so I smoke a lot of kush and pop a Zanex to sleep,” Brown raps on “Torture.” But he knows this solution is flawed. “Clean Up” explains how “problems of my past haunt my future and the present” but that simply “escaping from reality got me missing my blessings.” His tone softened, a far cry from the wilder moments of XXX (2011), this is Brown’s most powerful, most sensitive writing. Side A draws to a close with a series of realisations and resolutions: “It’s time for me to clean it up, I came too far to fuck it up,” Brown vows.
With Side B a new outlook, closer in sound and mentality to XXX, emerges from a process of catharsis. “Side B (Dope Song),” Brown raps, is “not my last dope song, but my last dope song.” Side A, he told the Guardian, had to “let … all these people know where I came from before I continue on.” But telling stories about selling dope has now grown old. “This the last time I’ma tell you,” he rants, “wanna hear it, here it goes.” With the transition to Side B, a new Danny Brown can put aside some of the worst aspects of his old selves. Drugs, for instance, no longer provide escape but enjoyment. “Molly is just my alter-ego,” he explained to Complex, “it brings out the person who wants to have fun.”
There are strong artistic reasons, too, for Brown’s metamorphosis. Brown is “sick of all these niggas with their ten year old story” and invites them to take Side B’s opener “as a diss song.” “I can’t just be rapping gangster shit,” he told Complex, “I’m around that shit all day. That shit is kinda boring.” The new Danny wants to push his artistic experimentation beyond the limits of Side A. “I don’t want nothing to sound like someone who lives next door to you who raps,” he explained to the Guardian.
Side B reprises the sex, drugs and thumping electronic beats that earned XXX such acclaim. But something is different here. Brown is now consciously testing himself. His vocal range, speed, ability to overcome complex time signatures, each is pushed to its limit. “ UK-imported grime provides Brown’s stimulus: Scrufizzer’s tongue-twisting guest spot on “Dubstep,” commanding “listen up Danny Brown,” dares the Detroit rapper to push himself even further. “Don’t let me into my zone,” he warns over his bass-driven half-hymn to molly, “Dip.” But the intensity builds with Rustie’s militaristic beat on “Break It (Go)” and reaches its height as “Handstand” puts a girl’s “hands on the floor and her feet on the wall” in a Darq E Freaker-produced ode to explicit gymnastic positions. Proud of tackling the most inhospitable of beats – “Who could rap on that beat? Probably not too many people,” he bragged to Complex – “Way Up Here” then finds Brown and Ab-Soul going in over a second Rustie production that would leave most MCs nauseous.
Side B has an eye firmly on live performances. Nevertheless, some tracks jut out and could sit just as comfortably on Side A. “Kush Coma,” for example, returns to the kind of drug-fuelled escapism that was criticised on “Clean Up.” “Knowing goddamn well when the high go away, same shit still gon’ be in my way,” Brown’s tone reverts to reflective futility. Likewise, Side A has tracks that could cross over to Side B. “Dope Fiend Rental,” for instance, previews Side B’s adrenaline-fuelled sexuality – albeit with a far darker tone.
Old is Brown’s best work. Complex beyond its two-sided structure, it is filled with narratives that collide, sentiments that conflict and resolutions that come to nothing. Thoughts and feelings hop from Side A to Side B and back to haunt the rapper as tries to move on. But for all its complexity, it ends in satisfying symmetry. Side B’s final track “Float On,” another equally suited to Side A, considers the new trials associated with success. Side A saw the old Danny “trapped in the trap,” trying to escape. The new Danny is still trapped, but “trapped in the beat, stuck on every line.” He is still getting high, but “getting high thinking how to make it better than [his] last shit.” “Pray I get old,” he intones as the track winds down, “just to see my influence in this genre of music,” and with that prayer Old leaves rapper and listener joined together in imagining all the other new Danny Browns his career will bring.