If you listen to Danny Brown’s podcast – the Danny Brown Show – as much as I do, one of the things you can’t ignore is how often he alludes to his continued struggles with substance and alcohol abuse and his citation of arriving late to the music industry as a key reason for his renegade middle aged behaviour. It’s true, Brown wasn’t what we would recognise as a bona fide star until about a decade ago, when he was already thirty two years old. Brown started out at a point when most of his peers were transitioning into the latter stages of their catalogue. ‘Quaranta’, in this sense aptly named, is an album about being in your forties, and how the peace many of us are told to expect from middle age is a fickle thing. Brown is often jokingly referred to as a former ‘crackhead’, and it’s not something he shies away from, but his bantering Reddit persona has gone a long way to masking the horrifying realities most of his fans are spared from, that being a ‘crackhead’ in Detroit, Michigan, one of the United States’ most dangerous and stagnant cities, for over 20 years leaves some very deep and painful scarring.
‘Quaranta’ is Brown’s attempt to step into introspection and psychoanalyse his past, separating his larger than life persona from the reality of being a tortured artist. To the extent that introspection is a trend in recent hip-hop, it’s had mixed results in terms of audiences; for every MAVI masterpiece there’s a Kanye West nervous breakdown, and we take for granted perhaps just how hard it is to simultaneously be profoundly vulnerable and actually make good music, neither is a given.
The bulk of the album’s production sound has a clear basis in recent Alchemist albums, but it’s not operating at the same high standard, it’s consistent in some of it’s measures but these aren’t the kinds of things that fit with the slower and deeper pace of Brown’s lyrics (a lot of the bass is distorted in an unkempt and basement stereo style, recollective of the early Beastie Boys or even King Crimson). The Beastie Boys comparison feels all the more appropriate since the power chord guitars on the first few tracks feel more like they were recorded with a live band than sampled, and frankly it doesn’t fit well. As far as hip-hop relates, these guitar effects sound like Eminem when he recorded ‘Beautiful’ on ‘Relapse’ back in 2009, which wasn’t palatable to his larger fanbase even if it was impressively ambitious. The first few tracks on ‘Quaranta’ suffer from the same issue.
The more upbeat parts of the album are similarly playful in their pop culture orbit and janky beats in a way that recalls ‘NehruviaDoom’, but that album was much more light-hearted and in that sense could get away with the disjointed tone, while the production on ‘Quaranta’ is confusingly inconsistent with the tone the lyrics set out. The title track’s beat is string heavy in a way weirdly reminiscent of Vulfpeck and BadBadnotGood and basically acts as a trapdoor for what’s about to come, as the album descends into a more self loathing and darkly spiralling tone from the MC.
This is Danny’s inferno. The lyrical subject matter is centred on the dialectic of rap as a gift and curse, bringing a hefty psychological burden to carry on top of the fame and fortune. Danny doesn’t beat around the bush, (“A lot has changed sine Triple X came out”) referring to just how unrecognisable the world has become in the last ten years, but in keeping with the album’s theme of self-reflection it’s more an acknowledgement of Danny’s wild propulsion to global stardom, having still been perennially homeless around the time Triple X dropped in 2012. That candour is apparent throughout, and honestly part of the problem. Lyrics like (“lost everything in pursuit of my dream,”) aren’t subtle enough to avoid cliches that we’ve heard from plenty of fed up and industry critical rappers. However, as often
in these cases, Brown’s quick to remind us that he’s no slouch just because he occasionally feels sorry for himself (“Reach one teach one”) and he’s not to be taken advantage of just because he’s lamenting a low point in his life. It’s a typical trope on more emotional rap albums, even Tyler the Creator’s seminal ‘IGOR’ contained hardcore tracks like ‘What’s Good’ to balance out the overarching emotionality. The warning’s are broader than Brown’s personal life as he reminds us, (‘if you play with matches you get burned”).
The quiet tone contrasts, maybe intentionally, with Brown’s last album ‘Scaring The Hoes’, a collaboration with JpegMafia who commands this eclectic style much more comfortably. This time, industry consciousness is measured up to hypocrisy (“Black Lives Matter still sniff cocaine”) but the escapes into humour don’t always hit. References to the sexual misadventures of African-American celebrities like Karl Malone, Gary Coleman, and Dave Chapelle aren’t as funny as they seem intended to be, and revive problematic narratives that Brown seems confusingly to want to express sentimentality over. Self-pitying and understandable contemplations of his ex-girlfriend quickly warp into frightening brutalities of prostitution and human trafficking as facts of life, and in that sense the album gets progressively more alienating, taking you out of your comfort zone but never really teaching you anything novel.
Concept albums definitely benefit from consistent sound, and the change ups in the beats (the drums go from rapid fire thumping on ‘Y.P.B’ to subtler snares and crash symbols on ‘Dark Sword Angel’, seeming more derivative from early 1990’s RZA work). If you had to try and put a single label on the production for this album it sounds like a missing ‘DITC’ work, and the apparent influence of Lord Finesse’s gritty style is one of the things worth admiring. The quirkier elements like lullaby keyboards on ‘Ain’t My Concern’, and meme references to the Office’s Michael Scott on ‘Tantor’ are original but just don’t fold into the whole experience in an immersive way.
Danny speaks up on how his “rap’s like Tetris”, but this one doesn’t really fit. We get a taster of the old Danny Brown, but it’s weirdly self-referential and uncomfortable. Recycling one of his more well known lines (“season tickets to the Pistons”) just feels like one of many tired NBA references. If anything songs like ‘Dark Sword Angel’ are filler on an album that isn’t really long enough to afford this much passivity. The Pistons allusion is important too, there’s no problem with staying close to one’s roots but Danny has succeeded Eminem as the voice of Detroit, and the consistent references to the city’s economic malaise are kind of stale, at least musically. With that said, tracks like ‘Jenn’s Terrific Vacation’ bring out his wittiest observations with a passionate attack on gentrification; no matter how bad things get Brown would rather see Detroit destitute than lose it’s soul.
Of all of rap’s recent survivalist tendencies, this feels the most negatively impacted by Reddit and social media culture. Mumbling hooks about paying child support don’t suffice anymore in terms of entertainment or inspiration. Danny experiments with plenty of different vocal tones (even distorted acapellas) and intensities but the flow on ‘Y.B.P’s guest appearance by Bruiser Wolf is just confusing, bringing a deadpan and almost grandfatherly impact to what had been an album building sinister tension, this feature carries every cliche Hannibal Burress used to make fun of in his stand up routines about Early Hip Hop, and it feels like Slick Rick at his most crude. ‘Y.B.P’ does benefit from a subtle production allusion to the Geto Boys, a sound that not many producers bother to emulate, but Brown goes on to oversell the reference.
I’m not trying to knock a man for breaking his crazy and outgoing persona to show his sensibilities, but the sombreness, lack of subtly (“Try to kill my pain so I drink”) feels confessional rather than crafted, it’s hip-hop at it’s most lacrimose, which is ambitious even for more lyrically astute artists. The cautionary tale themes over money lending and taking your partner for granted get too much air time, and the borrowing of Geto Boys’ words for the hook on ‘Down Wit It’ kind of sums up the problem; “I had a woman down with me, but she was out to get me”. One of the best lines in the whole album, which fits so well with the theme is just a reference to another song, and this time the paranoia lacks relatability. It just doesn’t feel like Brown on top of his game or in a clear relationships with what he wants to say, the same cyclical regret rides over the hydraulic bass jumps on ‘Shakedown’ but lines like “it was all sugar til it turned to salt” remind me of U-God more than any more impressive MCs.
Most of the songs are frankly missing something and it feels a bit rushed (even ‘Jenn’s Terrace’, one of my favourites, has no bass line worth writing about, even in a minimal sense.) The whole thing feels like Brown trying to remember songs he had written years ago, rather than turning over a new leaf and refreshing our perspective as fans. “You never miss nobody when you live in your own head” isn’t the quality of wordsmith we’ve come to expect from the man who wrote Hermanos less than 12 months ago. How you go from writing “Narcissist arsonist in my arsenal, got carpel tunnel cause I was holding that Acqua” to “Have you shedding tears before you get to the chorus” within a year is a clear step down in quality, and a worrying one. Still, while it’s easy for me to criticise Brown for not being as deep as he might like to be, it’s important to ask the question, who really is?
If you want to compliment this album, as noted, it’s definitely a harbinger of adventurous drum patterns. The outro on ‘Jenn’s Terrace’ feels like a nice throwback to Questlove and D’Angelo’s Electric Ladyland jam sessions. That’s really the big shift in the second half of the album, as the beats go from being dominated by heavy duty sound effects and distortions to instrumentation, with the beat for ‘Hanami’ melding the two nicely and almost sounding like the music for the original Pokémon games. The last measures of the beat are lovely and probably should be its own neo-jazz beat; with the strings on the encore a nice touch. It’s the only thing on the album I would say has a recognisable Madlib influence on it, which is never a bad thing and perhaps lacking across the rest of the work.
The albums crowning achievement and by far its best song is ‘Celibate’; where the references to criminality do actually transport you to a different world unlike most of the metaphors on the tape. The beat has a classic noir ambience and sensitive Isley Brothers inspires bass line. Even the NBA references I was criticising before are much more on point and the nature of the rhetoric is more biting (“If you ain’t getting money then what the fuck is you around for?”). The word play from the track title works on multiple levels, and the double entendre is transactional in a world were transactions cost lives (“I used to sell a bit, but I don’t fuck around no more I’m celibate.”) When I talk about the Alchemist’s sound being the overwhelming force of nature in today’s hip-hop, MIKE is maybe the MC most attuned to that (“I keep the premises alive”), and the seamless way he picks up Brown’s exact flow and builds on it is the impervious mark of someone who’s truly at their peak (“Only one who questioned me was God”).
This album is a step in the right direction in terms of mood, but it’s an overstep in terms of the emotional burden Brown is offering. The choruses are repetitive and don’t fit, and the take away should be focusing more on balance. However, it’s not a question of if he can get that balance right, but when.
On ‘Shakedown’ Danny notes his big revelation of ten years in the eye of the music industry storm; (“Now I understand the best things in life are free”), that includes his talent and imagination. Building on this and seeing it as a stepping stone should be a call to arms, for him to challenge himself rather than feeling an interminable aftershock from the last ten crazy years. It’s a question of catching up, for a man who’s just experienced things in his forties that most of his peers go through in their 20s, and seizing that second chance (“it could have ended right their on the Clermont steps”) should make us excited for the renaissance. Danny rounds out the album by urging us to “play one more again.” Personally I probably won’t, but it’s made me a lot more excited to hear what comes next, after a tumultuous 2023 from one of hip-hop’s true firecrackers and most genuine personalities.
Words: Philip Cluff