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Danny Brown, 2019
Danny BrownPhotography Tom Keelan

Danny Brown is tired of you putting him in a box

Danny Brown, 2019

He gained a reputation as a pill-popper living life to the extreme, but with his new album U Know What I’m Sayin?, the Detroit rapper says that he’s living his best life

With his crooked teeth, mischievous laugh, and a reputation for living life to the absolute extreme, Detroit rapper Danny Brown is often considered somewhat of a provocateur. Like Ol’ Dirty Bastard for the internet era, he’s a hip hop iconoclast not afraid to live out the things he raps about, no matter how icky they might sometimes sound. One urban legend suggests he once got fellated while performing a song on stage, while on the subversive “Die Like A Rockstar”, he famously boasts: “I’m fried off the same shit that rockstars died from!”

Yet the mythology around Brown being this Adderall-chewing, maniacally smiling court jester of rap has always felt a little lazy. First and foremost, Brown’s music, which creates a feeling of emotional dissonance via twitchy tribal drums and dusty snares that recall his existential heroes Joy Division and Talking Heads, is an exploration of toxic masculinity and the idea that even though male rock stars might look happy on the outside, there’s every chance their screaming on the inside, drowning under the pressure of what their peers expects them to be. This is perfectly summarised by the chaotic “Ain’t it Funny”, when Brown spits: “I might need rehab, but to me that shit pussy / pray for me y’all / ’cos I don’t know what’s coming to me.” 

On XXX and Atrocity Exhibition – both classic albums of the current rap era – Brown joked about drugs (“So much coke, I can get me a ski-lift”), but there was a sense that he was doing so while staring into the abyss. When he does rap about getting high, he does it with substance, forcing the listener to think through exactly what he might be trying to escape from by dropping a pill or chain-smoking a joint. Still, Danny Brown accepts that this juxtaposition might not have filtered through to everybody. “People just think I’m this larger-than-life character,” he tells me over the phone on a Friday evening, in a polite tone that occasionally descends into nutty howls of laughter. “It’s partly my fault, but I hate when people come around me with a preconception of who I am. Because so many people have pre-judged me in that way (of being a drug rapper), I’ve missed out on a lot of opportunities in the industry.”

This could be the reason why his new album, U Know What I’m Sayin?, is such a radical departure from the twitchy punk ethos of previous Danny Brown records. If Atrocity Exhibition was full of hyper-animated anthems that mixed rap with the gurning chaos of an industrial rave, then the more philosophical U Know What I’m Sayin? is designed to inspire some serious soul searching during a solitary listen. Brown is still having fun and embodying the spirit of a wise-cracking character from a Blaxploitation movie (on the inventive, Paul White-produced “Belly of the Beast”, he hilariously rhymes: “I eat so much shrimp I got iodine poisoning” with “Hoes on my dick because I look like Roy Orbison”), but the overall sonic mood is far more reflective, designed to show that there’s much more to the rapper than just being a menace.

On colourful opener “Change Up”, he explores his heritage and the fact that even though he might now have the mind of a master, to some, he still has the blood of a slave. Meanwhile, “Shine”, a psychedelic introspective duet with Blood Orange, sees Danny hint at suffering from PTSD, as he admits to “smoking Diesel to forget it all”. It’s easily his most grown-up project. “The new album is about stripping away everything that people expect from a Danny Brown album and to see if I can still be dope,” he agrees. “It’s like, yes I am motherfucker, because I can really rap, you know what I’m saying?” 

Executive produced by A Tribe Called Quest legend Q-Tip, who potently channels jazz on “Combat”, crafting a sax-heavy, experimental beat that feels sonically like it could have been lifted from The Low End Theory sessions, the record displays clear artistic growth, and feels like it’s been created by somebody finally comfortable with their own shadow, even though it might be starting to look a little greyer (Brown turned 38 this year). “I want to show people you can get better with age and that there shouldn’t be a drop off,” Brown explains. “Rappers sometimes get older and fall off, but you should be getting better with age more than anything else. Rap isn’t a physical sport, it is a mental one, and your mind gets wiser when you get older.” 

The last time I interviewed Brown, he was sat behind a table that had enough weed on it to open six or seven dispensaries, seemingly approaching tour life more with the excess of a member of the Mötley Crüe than a pampered modern pop star. Yet it feels like those wild days are, mostly, a thing of the past, with the rapper obviously conscious of what happened to artists like Mac Miller and Lil Peep. He’s a changed man with new teeth, a TV chat show, Danny’s House, on Viceland (on one episode, he and A$AP Rocky hilariously rate aliens based on their fuckability), and a profound realisation that spending an evening by the fire with his Bengal cats, Siren and Chie (who he regularly shows off on Instagram), is one of the most enjoyable things in the world and an invaluable piece of self-care. On new soulful bop “Best Life”, when Brown passionately declares, “’Cause there ain’t no next life so I’m living my best life,” you believe every single word. This is music made by somebody who has made it through to the other side, no longer just living for the moment, but for the future too.

I know after Atrocity Exhibition dropped, you had a long period of writer’s block. How did working with Q-Tip inspire you, and get you out of that creative funk? 

Danny Brown: I just couldn’t write. I kept doing so much shit to overcome it, whether that was sensory deprivation or even meditating; just all this shit that was supposed to awaken something inside of me. But the answer was a lot more obvious than that. I asked Nas for advice and he just said: “Stop thinking so hard and fucking rap! You already fucked it up with your thought process, so just make music.” I was like, “but what if I make a wack song?” And Nas was like: “Well, just make another one.” That really helped me. 

In terms of working with Tip, well, before I used to care too much about shit and it would stress me out, but this was the least stressful album I’ve ever worked on. He really taught me how to give more love and care to my music. You have all the time in the world to put music out, so why not make it perfect before actually releasing it? Before I used to try and catch lightning in a bottle and make up songs in five minutes, but with Tip, it’s like, I saw him working on one snare for six hours. It means you get a better end product. 

When he gave me the beat to “Combat”, it was mouth-watering. It was like seeing the most sexiest bitch in the world walk towards me and say “You can have me, Danny!” Tip is my lifelong partner now. I want him to produce all my albums. We’re getting closer as friends so the next album will be even better. I want to drop something within a year. I got a joint with slowthai coming too, so watch out for that. I try to only work with people who I feel fit into my universe.

This album feels a lot more introspective and philosophical than previous Danny Brown albums. Are you happy settling into that elder statesman role?

Danny Brown: I don’t like being put in a box (as a drug rapper), so I wanted to tone down the drug content and the sexual content. We weren’t gonna have the high pitched voice that’s all crazy either. This one was about stripping away everything that Danny Brown is and to see if I am still dope.

Drugs have affected my life since I was born, in terms of my family being addicted to them right up to my family selling them and me being able to take care of myself from drug money. Drugs will always be a theme of my albums, but on this one I am talking more about hustling than actually taking them. I want to show people you can make it out of being caught up in them and come out winning. I am an OG now. People call me Uncle Danny, so whenever I speak to someone new, I try to leave them with some kind of jewel of advice. I want to lead by example.

But you still have a lot of fun too, like on “Dirty Laundry”, where you talk about doing the “humpty hump” in the Burger King bathroom. I know the album’s artwork is a literal reference to Richard Pryor, is he someone you try to channel?

Danny Brown: Ali Shaheed Muhammad (of A Tribe Called Quest) always told me I was like the Richard Pyror of rap and that I needed to tap into that more, so that comes through more on this album. Richard would always joke about the most outlandish shit. He said some crazy off the wall shit, but there was always some depth to it too. That’s what I want to do. I’ve always been goofy, it is just a part of who I am.

That way you channeled punk into XXX and Atrocity Exhibition has been picked up by so many other rappers. On “Savage Nomad”, you rap, “Bunch of Danny copies, but they trash and sloppy”. Do you ever feel like your style has been ripped off? Or that you don’t get enough credit as a pioneer in terms of having such a unique rapping style?

Danny Brown: Definitely. I see a lot people doing their best Danny Brown impression. It is cute. I am tight with it. I see a lot of people jumping on the wave. At the end of the day I am the big Homie OG so it is cute. In terms of being overlooked, my music is an acquired taste. Not everyone can eat caviar, it is expensive. The normies, the regular McDonald’s eating motherfuckers, they can’t even digest my shit. They can’t even afford it! You need a rich ear to get this. I can’t be mad at that. People need rich ears.

I think once this album drops, people won’t be able to overlook me. I am working with a legend, so I’m on my way to becoming one too. Remember, I’ve been in the game for ten years, and I’m only getting better. I feel like I can be the illest 40-year-old-rapper on the planet. I want to be the number one at 40. People say rap is a young man’s game, but we’re now in a world where a 40-year-old can be the best. Being older doesn’t have that stigma anymore.

“I’ve been in the game for ten years, and I’m only getting better. I feel like I can be the illest 40-year-old-rapper on the planet. I want to be the number one at 40” – Danny Brown

Do you feel that standards have slipped? Like, I could never imagine a day where a gangster rapper like Tekashi 6ix9ine could be a snitch and still potentially have a career waiting for them. Does that surprise you?

Danny Brown: I mean, that isn’t my universe, but I can totally see a snitch rapper still having a career, as rap has become more of an entertainment thing now. Before, it was more of a true expression of who you were as a person, but now it’s just entertainment. A person can get a huge social media following and the next logical step is for these motherfuckers to start rapping. Becoming a YouTuber, then a rapper, is a natural journey nowadays; rap is just a stepping stone for fame.

Standards have definitely slipped. I used to learn more from rappers than I did my own dad, they were my teachers. Now you got kids listening to kids and they only really listen because they look like them; it is the blind leading the blind. You used to learn something from rap music but now it ain’t teaching you shit. But I guess I do actually like the fact everyone is a fucking rapper now, because it means the people who are really good stand out a lot more brightly.

Clear up a rumour for me. A few years ago, when Dave Chappelle bombed at his show in Detroit, he blamed it on a local rapper giving him some strong weed. Was that you?

Danny Brown: Yeah, I feel bad about that! It was my fault. He don’t wanna hang out with me anymore. He got this whole Half Baked movie reputation so I thought he could really handle weed. I brought my best out! It had a little wax on it. It was basically some of that Moon Rocks shit. He don’t be smoking like that now. I recently hung out with the Lonely Island and they got real nervous when I talked about weed. I have developed a reputation. Now you got all these comedians and actors that don’t wanna hang with me, thinking I will lace them and fuck up their shit. It isn’t the best reputation... it sucks, man!

On “Best Life”, when you talk about there not being a next life, is that because you’re an atheist?

Danny Brown: In terms of life after death and all that shit, I don’t know man! I wanna say I believe in reincarnation as I don’t believe our souls die. I wanna come back as a cat and sit by the fire. I want to be lazy and shit all day. I don’t wanna be no stinky alley cat out on the streets, hustling for some food. I want to be a rich person’s cat. Man, that would be the life, wouldn’t it?

If you could tell teenage Danny anything right now, what would it be? 

Danny Brown: I’d tell young Danny to not give a fuck. Stop caring so much! You only have so many fucks you can give. Give a shit about the stuff that matters in life and stop caring about the shit that’s out of your control. Like, you might dream about having your own TV show, but it is really going to happen one day. You’re going to shoot for the skies and reach the stars.

Danny Brown’s new album U Know What I’m Sayin? is out now