Danny Brown Has No Competition
On the cusp of the Detroit rapper's 'Atrocity Exhibition,' the now 35-year-old is more comfortable than ever. This is his moment.
Danny Brown can barely keep his eyes open. He's sitting alone, in a corner booth on the roof of the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. In front of him: a paper cup of coffee, untouched, and a stack of promotional posters. He scrawls a signature on each one, then pushes it to the side; when he's moved through three or four, a hovering assistant replenishes the stack.
Earlier this year, the Detroit native turned 35. A few months before that, he purchased a home in Farmington, one of the city's northern suburbs. That house is where he locked himself in total solitude for weeks on end, writing what would become Atrocity Exhibition, out September 30 on Warp, his first album in almost exactly three years. But today he's less than two weeks from beginning a tour that will keep him on the road, snaking all over North America and Europe, until early December. He tells me needs to get healthy enough to make it through the schedule, and soon. He's already been awake for hours, fielding phone calls from reporters at daily papers and tiny blogs in Dayton, Milwaukee, Austin, Cincinnati—they all start to blur together. Eventually he puts the cap on the bronze Sharpie, and that's that.
The assistant grabs the unsigned posters and makes a mental note to try again later. One of Brown's managers, Dart Parker, the director of A&R at Shady Records, materializes and replaces the glamor shots with a leather-bound menu. Danny demurs. Dart insists he eat something: There's chicken, charcuterie, seafood. They settle on tequila, rocks. "I can't have any sugar," Danny explains.
The Ace's roof is dotted with tank tops and bikinis, but he's dressed head-to-toe in black, a crew neck sweatshirt and zipper-laden pants that are surely more expensive than some of the cars at valet. Even toeing the line between awake and asleep, he looks like a star, the hair askew, diamond-fronted teeth flashing every time he smiles. I ask him if the Detroit he sees now is much different from the Detroit he grew up in.
"If you wanna be honest, I haven't really been there that much to know what the fuck is going on," he says. "When I'm at home, I'm in the house, and when I'm out and about it's been in other cities." The tequila arrives, along with oysters, assorted meats, and a variety of other appetizers. Danny grimaces. "For the last five years, I couldn't tell you what's really going on. It seems like it's getting better, but I couldn't really tell you."
Atrocity Exhibition sounds like something garish in the face of death, like wearing lots of gold to a wake or pre-gaming in a graveyard. On "Ain't It Funny," the blood pouring down Danny's face pools on a red carpet (it blends in); on "Today" he interpolates Andre's verse from "B.O.B.," then taunts the second-person subject about another man raising his child. There are sneakily complex lines (from "Tell Me What I Don't Know": "We were so ambitious / All we really wanted was new Jordan and some bitches"). But the album's prevailing trait is its careful, thorough musicality.
"I wasn't around for the whole Detroit open mic scene," Danny says of trying to stand out in the early stages of his career. "I came in on the end of that. So I never really had to get into that 'it's all about 16s.' It was all about writing songs. I had to learn how to write hooks."
That's a practice that carries over to this day. "First I gotta have the hook," he says. "Then it's flow. Eventually words come into it. I take a long time to write a song: I could have the hook and the cadence I'm gonna use, and I study that for so long that I can literally be in the shower and make the first verse [in my head]. 'Fuck, I gotta hurry up and go write it!'" he laughs. "You know what I'm saying? It's already in me—I can be dreaming, and wake up and have the words in my head. I don't sit there and force it."
"It's already in me—I can be dreaming, and wake up and have the words in my head. I don't sit there an force it."
None of that is to suggest there isn't serious, regimented time spent crafting the songs. Danny works mostly from his home, on a fixed schedule. "It's a lock-in type of thing," he explains. "If I'm working on an album, then every night at 10 PM, I start writing, whatever I can get out. I might not even write; I might just be picking out beats. I call it A&Ring, I A&R myself. I come up with concepts, maybe write a hook here, maybe write a hook there. I might make a hook one night, then the next night when I come back to it, I might think of the first two lines, then it just go from there. Before you know it, the song's done." Often he's pulling from folders of beats that have been sitting on his hard drive for years:" There's beats on my album that I had three years ago, [even] some from the XXX batches. I wasn't ready for them yet."
Detroit is probably best known to rap fans from elsewhere in the world as the birthplace of horrorcore. (Some revere it for the true-school revivalism they associate with Dilla, but that's a tenuous connection that would take far too long to pick apart.) But the city's most broadly impactful musical movement—post-Motown, that is—was the birth of techno. Putting out a record with Warp, a label whose relationship with hip-hop has only ever been tangential (Death Grips, Flying Lotus), is a nod to a new direction, one where the first single is a breathless exercise designed for the 1:30-2:00 AM DJ slot. "When It Rain" is a smart sample dose of the album writ large: Paul White et al. toy with quicker BPMs and more precise percussion than has ever graced a Danny Brown record, to hypnotic results.
And if Old's tension was of professionalism vs. nihilism, capitalism vs. personal identity, Atrocity Exhibition's is more purely creative. Where the former saw Danny making a suite of EDM-infused tracks so as to bulk up his schedule of summer shows, the new album sees him dropping $70,000 on sample clearances and knocking the normal blueprints for rap songs off their axes. Not so utilitarian. Songs retreat within themselves, mazes of high-concept dance nerdery unspool into something downright nightmarish. It bangs, and it's sinister.
The rapping, as his listeners have come to expect, is superb. Since his breakthrough with 2010's The Hybrid, Danny's been noted for his unique vocal abilities, alternating between—and sometimes integrating—a high-pitched, nasally delivery and a lower deadpan. But it's his array of different flows and cadences that make his music near-impossible to imitate. He says that his ear for seams in an instrumental comes from his time in public school band class. "Subconsciously, it comes from when I was in elementary school, I played trumpet. I eventually got all the solos, so I like to think I rap like a trumpet solo. Instead of going with the beat, I'm weaving in and out of it, [trying] to find as many different patterns and flows as I can in the smallest amount of time. To keep it unpredictable."
If Old's tension was of professionalism vs. nihilism, capitalism vs. personal identity, Atrocity Exhibition's is more purely creative.
Kendrick Lamar appears on Atrocity Exhibition, alongside Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt on a song called "Really Doe." Danny tackles the first verse, and while the guests all acquit themselves admirably (Earl says "I was a liar as a kid, so now I'm honest as fuck" and "I just broke up with my bitch 'cause we ain't argue enough"), no one ever really knocks him off of the marquee. He does it by going technical, finding variations on his patterns within bars, stopping on a dime and shifting the points of emphasis backward and forward at will. "I feel like when people talk about rap music, they talk down on it," he laments. "I don't like that. It's no different from any other musical genre. We're songwriters."
Danny doesn't even bother to pretend that he's productive on tour ("I don't write when I'm running around like that, only at home"). But the isolation he craves doesn't mean he's stopped keeping up with rap: "I try to think of it all the time, like, who could be my competition? Who's in my lane? I was gone for three years, who took my spot?" He waits for a beat, maybe to see if I can think of someone he's missed. "Nobody! That don't normally happen with rap."
Five years ago, Danny Brown was on the cusp. For most of his twenties—the parts not spent ducking warrants, at least—he'd been living something of a double life in the rap industry. Though virtually unknown outside of underground circles, he was making frequent trips to New York (albeit by Greyhound), even landing meetings with Roc-A-Fella A&Rs. Back home, he was building a modest buzz with a series of mixtapes and an independent album, Hot Soup. 50 Cent considered signing him, but balked at Brown's wardrobe; when Danny couldn't afford a laptop to record demos on, Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest bought him a MacBook.
That all started to change with The Hybrid, an audacious record that made him something of a cult favorite, at least on the internet. (To this day, he says he doesn't get bothered by many humans in public unless he's in "full Danny Brown costume.") The digital din got louder, and Ali's partner Q-Tip helped broker a deal with A-Trak, landing Danny at Fool's Gold. Things were moving—slowly. Then came 2011.
XXX was a tour de force. Danny had grown up studying formalists like Nas and regional heroes like Mac Mall and Master P, Spice-1 and Scarface; he had a meticulous understanding of what critics wanted and what held up over time, but he discarded everything that wasn't jarring, intimate, unhinged. The album's most often read as a meditation on mortality: "I'm getting old and time's running out"; "Thirty-something black male, OD'd off of pills"; "If this shit don't work, nigga, I failed at life." But it was also colored by the pain, acute and accumulated, of his upbringing.
Take "Scrap Or Die," XXX's post-recession procedural about stripping foreclosed homes of their hot water tanks, aluminum siding, even the wiring hidden inside the drywall. The inspiration came from Danny's uncle, who was something of a scrap savant.
"I'm from the West side of Detroit, but when we got a little older, we moved to the East side," he says. "The difference is that the West side—that's where Big Sean is from—it's more classy. The East side is where Eminem's from. People there don't care about clothes. The most popular guy is the toughest guy. That's the difference between schools in Detroit—"
A guy in an Armani polo interrupts, explaining that he's with Ace Hotel security and could you please not shoot photos with professional lenses up here it's against the rules thank you very much. As soon as Danny realizes his manager is handling the situation, the Armani polo ceases to exist, and he turns his attention back to me.
"When I went to school on the East side it was gang banging. The most popular guy was the one who brought the gun to school. On the West side, it was nobody caring about that gangsta shit, the most popular guy was the guy who drove the Benz to school and had jewelry." He leans in to the table, hovering dangerously close to a bowl of mignonette sauce. "Now I'm not no gangsta, I've done shit because that's what I was supposed to do. But I know deep down in my heart, that's not where I'm at. So the West side always looked a little better [to me]—it damn near looked suburban. But my uncle was scrapping and literally destroyed that neighborhood. It damn near looks like the East side now. There [used to be] grass; on the East side, there aren't even trees, it's just fucked up. Now [the neighborhood my uncle ran through] is fucked up like the East side."
On XXX, the song before "Scrap Or Die" is "Fields," where houses you used to play at after school become shortcuts to the corner store and all the couches are sitting in front lawns, riddled with bed bugs. Danny mentions that the video for "Greatest Rapper Ever," one of the best songs from The Hybrid, features his uncle, breaking up scrap material in a kitchen.
That's not to say there wasn't some glamor in his teen years. "I was cooler than a motherfucker in high school," he says, grinning wide. "I was one of the best dressed. We had a clique—it was like a fashion clique, if you wanna call it that. We all met each other cause we were fresh." He finishes his tequila, glances quickly toward, the bar, then skips back to the mid-90s. "There was this one specific spot, a third-floor wall. We held that wall down. It wasn't about going to class: Every time classes broke, we would stand on that wall and show our clothes off. That's what we went to school for every day. When there were sales, we would meet up in front of school and catch two-hour bus rides to Somerset [Collection, an upscale mall North of the city, in Troy] just to go get a $90 Versace T-shirt off a rack."
While that group of friends was close-knit, they ribbed Danny for his rapping. Some never got the chance to come around. Questions about their collective future ("How are we gonna be able to support this lifestyle?") started to crop up. They started selling drugs together, then the group splintered as paranoia and subpoenas settled in. "I still can see one [of those friends] every now and then," Danny says, "but most of them dead, or in jail. One of my best friends—he did a lot for me—he just got locked up. He's probably about to do a lot time."
Dart checks the time on his iPhone, then asks Danny for a room key so he'll be able to move his bags. He heads to the elevator, a waiter appears, Danny politely brushes him off.
We talk about rap: the Bay influence you can hear in Doughboyz Cashout, the mechanics of Stack Bundles' ad-libs, the way Max B Trojan horsed so much great writing into songs that are better remembered for their melodies. (Danny says he once paid $100 for a hard copy of one of the Public Domain tapes.) We talk about how Boosie and Scarface are so popular in the upper midwest; we talk about the extent to which Atlanta strip club culture was influenced by drug dealers from Detroit.
When I'd arrived at the hotel an hour earlier, Danny was slumped in his seat, beat down by all those calls and what I can only assume is a punishing travel schedule. But when he talks about the minutiae of moderately successful records from 16 years ago, he smiles, then he engages his whole upper body, delivering Cam'ron's lines ("I ain't a rapper, b, I skeet Uzis / And I can't act—turned down three movies") as if he were still draped in Avirex.
To a degree, Danny talks as he raps. His pacing is careful, his syntax consistent—but the register of his voice bounces wildly up and down, depending on his mood, his level of interest, or the subject at hand. When he mentions rappers by name, it can seem like he's embodying them on every level, i.e. Boosie becomes "Booooosie," drawn out, with the O's given the urgent bounce that they get in Baton Rouge. When he tells a story about Cam dapping and then ignoring him during a chance encounter (as Danny's quick to point out, what else could you possibly want from Cam?), it sounds as if three different people are telling the story. And his laugh is the same, joyous cackle you hear on record.
"There are a lot of songs I really love because they trigger a certain memory."
Given his relationship with two of its members, I ask him what his favorite Tribe record is. "Low End Theory," he says. "My dad bought it for me. One thing I can say about music—it might not be the best music in the world, but for me, there are a lot of songs I really love because they trigger a certain memory."
The conversation turns to how murky those memories can be—how Midnight Marauders and 36 Chambers came out in the same month, how the G-funk crescendo had counterpoints in Newark and mutations in Houston.
"The biggest [example of that] was Stakes Is High and It Was Written coming out the same month," he says. "That changed the whole landscape of shit. I think that day changed it. You gotta think: you picked a side."
"Yeah, Stakes Is High almost sounds like a counterpoint," I say. "It Was Written was so glossy."
"You understand what I'm saying! Nas was supposed to be the guy who would take it to… either you ran with Nas with that, or you backlashed and went with De La."
"What did you pick?"
"It Was Written. Of course."
If XXX was about everything coming to a head at once, Old was about compartmentalization. The album, Brown's first since amassing a national fan base, was explicitly split into A- and B-sides, where the dark, autobiographical songs came first and were followed by a string of electronic-inspired cuts designed to land him high-paying festival gigs. It was a smart deconstruction of how art and commerce gnaw at one another; it was brilliant in stretches, dealing with cause-and-effect in absolute terms while muddying up the chronology. It could also be difficult to listen to, both for its disregard for familiar arcs of mood and sound and for the naked way he addressed his psychological pain on the front half.
On "Clean Up," the penultimate song on the A-side, Danny's lying next to a woman whose name he forgets in a hotel room he trashed the night before. "I know it ain't right, but in this state I don't care," he raps:
"A whole week went past, I ain't gone nowhere
Hotel rooms, crushing pills and menus
Daughter sending me messages, saying, 'Daddy, I miss you'
But in this condition, I don't think she need to see me."
Danny tells me about a night on Kendrick's tour bus: "I came on the bus, [Kendrick] had a beat on," he says. "He was writing to it. Then he went and did a show." After the concert, when the bus was full of people loudly partying, Kendrick "came back, cut the beat back on, and started writing again. I was like, 'What the fuck?'" Danny laughs for a long time. "I can't do no shit like that, but you understand why he's where he's at. [For me] it's too many distractions."
Danny still won't touch any of the cold cuts; he appeases his manager by toying with an oyster shell. I think about that line he raps sixty seconds into XXX: "I barely leave the house / Ain't slept in three days." I think about him putting his phone on airplane mode every night at 10 PM sharp, beats from a half-decade ago rattling off the walls in an otherwise empty home.
"Do you enjoy writing?"
I expect him to hesitate, to hedge what he says next. I think he might talk about the strain of expectations, or the fear of repeating himself after years in indistinguishable hotel rooms. He doesn't.
"Oh, yeah!" he says. "That's what I like more than anything. The writing part is the funnest part. There's nothing like writing some shit and singing it back to yourself, and thinking, 'I'm gonna fuck 'em up with this shit.'"
Danny finishes his second tequila. He pauses. Then he squints into the sun, looking East past downtown Los Angeles, past Boyle Heights, over what's left of the LA River. He says it again, quieter this time. "I'm gonna really fuck 'em up with this shit."
Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.
DANNY BROWN 'THE EXHIBITION 2016' NORTH AMERICAN TOUR DATES
9/14 Philadelphia, PA - Theater of the Living Arts
9/15 Providence, RI - Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel
9/16 New Haven, CT - Toad's Place
9/17 Clifton Park, NY - Upstate Concert Hall
9/18 Boston, MA - Paradise Rock Club
9/21 Columbus, OH - Park Street Saloon
9/22 Chicago, IL - House of Blues
9/23 Grand Rapids, MI - The Intersection
9/24 Milwaukee, WI - The Rave II
9/25 Minneapolis, MN - First Avenue
9/27 Des Moines, IA - Wooly's
9/28 Lincoln, NE - Bourbon Theatre
10/1 Salt Lake City, UT - The Complex
10/2 Boise, ID - Knitting Factory
10/4 Seattle, WA - Neptune Theatre
10/5 Portland, OR - Roseland Theater
10/6 Vancouver, BC - Vogue Theater
10/7 Spokane, WA - Knitting Factory
10/8 Eugene, OR - WOW Hall
10/11 San Francisco, CA - Regency
10/12 Santa Cruz, CA - The Catalyst
10/14 San Diego, CA - Observatory North Park
10/15 Los Angeles, CA - The Fonda Theatre
10/16 Santa Ana, CA - The Observatory
10/17 Phoenix, AZ - Crescent Ballroom
10/18 Albuquerque, NM - Sunshine Theater
10/20 Houston, TX - Warehouse Live
10/21 Dallas, TX - South Side Music Hall
10/23 Austin, TX - Emo's
10/25 New Orleans, LA - Republic New Orleans
10/26 Nashville, TN - Exit In
10/27 Atlanta, GA - Masquerade
10/28 Charlotte, NC - The Underground
10/29 Carrboro, NC - Cat's Cradle
10/30 Asheville, NC - The Orange Peel
11/1 Silver Springs, MD - The Fillmore Silver Springs
11/2 Pittsburgh, PA - Mr. Small's Theatre
11/3 Buffalo, NY - Town Ballroom
11/4 Toronto, ON - Phoenix Concert Theatre
11/5 Cleveland, OH - Grog Shop