Optics have always dictated the public’s perception of Danny Brown. The shrill voice, frizzy emo hair and missing front teeth became central to his image over the last decade as he cultivated a reputation for being a deterrent to the longstanding tradition of Hip Hop. Add to that the self-destructive tendencies he would habitually air out on record and you had one of the most concerning, yet spectacular, disruptors to the culture.
In 2017, the Michigan native stabilized his appearance — new grill and trimmed dome — leading many to believe he was turning over a new leaf, but this couldn’t have been farther from the truth. When uknowhatimsayin¿ went live two years later, Brown seemed more robust and amiable than ever before in the public eye, but was secretly wallowing in a pit of despair. In a much-welcomed reversal of these belying aesthetics, his latest body of work, Quaranta, offers an enlightened perspective from that same place of struggle he’s clawed his way out of.
A new press release has branded the album a “spiritual bookend” to his early-career indie blockbuster, XXX. Released when he was 30 years old, the drug-addled enterprise established Brown as the late bloomer from Detroit who was speedily catching up on all the partying he missed out on during his five-odd years as an underground staple. By his own pen, he was destined to crumble under the weight of his convictions. Fortunately, he snapped out of his stupor at 42, just in time to rewrite his story and prolong its ending.
The 11-part tracklist is essentially a “best of” taken from 30 to 40 songs recorded over the pandemic, he recently told Apple Music 1. Even though his triumphant stint in rehab has afforded him another lifeline, Brown’s only been sober for six months, whereas the concept in question was conceived when he was still trying to cut a deal with his demons. Yet, it sounds like he had already switched gears and was deeply contemplating a sustainable lifestyle long before he acted on it, almost as though his music was ahead of his day-to-day prognostics.
Far beyond the excess of Old and somewhere between the curse of XXX and Atrocity Exhibition resides Quaranta — tired and resigned but, above all, buoyant. The LP is characterized by a mindfulness that Brown usually channels through humor on his podcast and sporadic attempts at stand-up comedy, but his now-somber tone deters from the thrill of probing death while simultaneously trying to circumvent it.
The opening bar of the title track, which is also the intro joint — “This rap shit done saved my life/ and fucked it up at the same time” — encapsulates the principal themes of the record. Elaborating on that, “Hanami” serves as the body paragraph to the above thesis with lines such as “They say age catching up, so I’m running from death” and “Time wait for no man so you can’t waste time.”
Though each installment seamlessly fluctuates from one temperature to another, redemption and regret guide the package’s dark enchantment.
Virtually every version of Danny Brown surfaces at some point in the project, except these are no longer just costumes. He purposefully swings between fast, high-pitched 16s and succinctly worded confessions, opening up about his insecurities while occasionally taking a break to have a bit of a laugh. A “legacy album” in his own words, Quaranta is a clear-headed retrospect of his past actions and evidence of their ensuing remedies taking effect.
“Down Wit It,” for instance, sees him admitting that his defensive behavior amid a phase when he needed the most help ultimately sabotaged one of his most meaningful relationships: “I had a woman down with me/ But to me, she was down to get me.” A little later, on “Celibate,” he ponders how far he’s come since the 2006 prison sentence that inspired him to pursue rap: “I used to sell a bit/ But I don’t fuck around no more, I’m celibate/ Had me trapped in that cell a bit/ Locked up with some pimps, told me sell a bitch.”
His critique of gentrification in his hometown as heard on “Jenn’s Terrific Vacation” somewhat doubles as a timeline demonstrating the changes not just in his surroundings but within his body. The bars “Right there used to be a crack house/ Now it’s an organic garden,” intentionally or not, illustrate the contrast between XXX’s “Die Like a Rockstar” and the healthy eating and sleeping habits he has since adopted.
Brown’s cadence evokes a wide range of emotions, from punky explosions to the occasional ballad-type rap and everything in between. Without submitting to the industry’s “don’t forget me” model of constantly releasing new music, he narrowed down his tracklist with restraint and focused on intelligibility rather than extravagance. It is because of this heightened discretion that recruiting Bruiser Wolf, Kassa Overall and MIKE as the only guests feels just — they’re role players who don’t distract from the commander’s vision.
Songs such as “Ain’t My Concern” and “Bass Jams” might not have the most gripping texture, but they compensate by means of lyrical matter. Likewise, “Tantor” and “Dark Sword Angel” exemplify cuts that sound phenomenal, but haven’t much to offer besides fun and refined nonsense bars.
All in all, the album is muddy at times and succinct at others, resolving itself by forming a coherent balance in just a little over 30 minutes.
Crazy Danny, insofar as his antics are concerned, is a relic of the past. Though he has retained the spark that made him a beloved figure for rap nerds all over, Quaranta has helped break his fall and, as of now, positioned him to continue making quality music as he softens up with age and comfortably settles into OG status.