He's the hip-hop original Kanye West takes cues from, and his third album is another harsh triumph
Just when you think hip-hop is out of new ideas, from the endless ranks of faceless trap-rap clones steps a new original. Danny Brown, gap-toothed prince of Detroit, is emblematic of hip-hop’s so-called nu-skool: an emerging generation of free-thinking, leftfield MCs and future-facing rap producers who are intent on revolutionising the form.
Even next to fellow nu-skool oddballs – most notably A$AP Rocky, Schoolboy Q and Joey Badass – Brown is a freak among the freaks. Sporting a mop of scarecrow hair, he is, at 32, far older than your average breakthrough rapper. Brown is just as likely to rap about his favourite sandwich filling as he is about life on the street, and his influences include everything from art-punk giants This Heat to hip-hop beat wizard J Dilla. But if we’re living through a new golden age of rap, you can in part thank the bizarro sensibility of Brown and his cohorts. If you don’t believe this, consider Kayne West’s ‘Yeezus’, in which the single most progressive mainstream hip-hop producer on the planet looked to Brown’s harsh, vividly narcotic indie-rap aesthetic for a clue to the future.
Brown’s nu-skool genius is out in force here on his third album. The record’s producers take their cues from his truly singular flow – a terse, hectoring blend of squawking cocaine mania and ghoulish, punk gruffness – and respond in kind with an album of unprecedented production styles. There’s the Kraftwerkian rap of ‘Dip’; ‘Red 2 Go’, a kind of cyber-speed OutKast; and the sci-fi trap of ‘Handstand’. On ’25 Bucks’, Canadian dream-R&B duo Purity Ring reinvent dirty south rap. On ‘Dubstep’, producer SKYWLKR has the audacity to attempt a fractured synthesis of the helium synths of cloud rap with, of all things, UK grime.
But the pièce de résistance is ‘Break It (Go)’, on which Brown enlists none other than UK rave’s ultra-trap genius, Rustie. This is, in no uncertain terms, hip-hop as never you’ve never heard it before. The only half-way conventional tracks are slower, more introspective cuts like ‘Lonely’, driven by old-school soul sampling and with Brown’s screech mellowed to a less distinctive, more rhythmic flow. The title track, with its big funk beats and scratching, is also a tad stock. But the effect soon passes when next track ‘Wonderbread’ strikes up – the finest cartoon-psychedelic rap-rock acid trip written about the joy of good Hovis you’ll hear all year.
As befits such a gloriously flawed individual, not every experiment works – ‘Way Up Here’, a strange take on Death Grips noise-rap, is particularly disjointed, and tracks like ‘Torture’ borrow far too liberally from A$AP Rocky’s cloud-rap aesthetic to be considered original. But otherwise, ‘Old’ is a perfect example of why 2013 is a very exciting time for hip-hop.