One lonely night back in February 2014, Danny Brown – the profane, hilarious, angsty Detroit rapper whose wild flow had made him an underground star – unleashed a despairing tweetstorm that instantly sent shockwaves through the gossipy world of hip-hop. In between end-of-tether rants about fake friendships and music-industry duplicity, Brown opened up about the extent to which his depression and prodigious drug use were ruining his life.
“My anxiety’s at an all-time high,” he confessed to his 350k followers. “I can’t sleep. Depression is serious – y’all think I do drugs ’cause it’s fun? Nobody cares if I live or die. Y’all just want me to be goofy and make a damn fool out of myself. Y’all want me to overdose. Just don’t be surprised when you get what you asked for.”
It was bleak, alarming stuff. Danny’s family were calling him, deeply concerned about his fragile state. Just four months after the release of his most high-profile album yet – 2013’s widely acclaimed ‘Old’ – Danny was in a bad, bad place. Could one of the world’s most effortlessly talented rappers pull himself back from the edge?
A year and a half later, Danny’s leaning over a fifth-floor balcony at Shoreditch’s painfully cool Ace Hotel. He cuts a striking figure: 6ft 2in in punkish jeans, box-fresh Jordans, clicking gold grills and that jagged explosion of hair. He’s puffing weed, but that’s about as extreme as his drug intake gets these days. In the months since his online dark night of the soul, Brown – now 35 – has called time on self-destructive pill-popping, signed a new deal with prestigious leftfield imprint Warp and returned with the electrifying ‘Atrocity Exhibition’. It’s the album of his career and one of the very best albums – hip-hop or otherwise – of 2016.
“Every album up until now, I’ve been trying to make this album,” asserts Danny, in a thoughtful, low-spoken manner entirely at odds with the cartoonishly volatile persona he projects on record. “With Warp, it’s like a marriage made in heaven. We got the same code of ethics; we’re both on that experimental wave. I was really able to spread my wings.” Danny’s key collaborator on ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ was London-based producer Paul White, who’s worked alongside the rapper since his debut, 2011’s ‘XXX’. White’s stripped-back psychedelic beats would flummox the flows of many rappers, but Danny relishes the challenge.
“I’ve got over 500 beats from Paul,” says Danny. “I’ve got beats of his that I wanted to use back on ‘XXX’ or ‘Old’, but my mind wasn’t strong enough yet. I’ve been listening to some of these beats for years, tryin’ to figure out how to rap over them. I had to sit with them for that long. I look at it like karate: these are the black-belt beats. I wasn’t ready for ’em – but I’m a black belt now, y’know [laughs]?”
Brown’s already extraordinary skill-set has indeed levelled up on the new album. His ability to switch between flows and vocal registers has developed to such a degree that he can now sound like a different rapper – literally an entirely different person – from one track to the next, while his painstakingly constructed lyrics have never hit harder. There’s always been an undercurrent of emotional turmoil beneath Danny’s trademark goofiness, but it’s never been more pronounced or affecting than on ‘Atrocity Exhibition’.
As also recently deployed by the likes of Earl Sweatshirt, Ka and Future, such raw vulnerability is a relatively new trend within hip-hop, a genre traditionally concerned with projecting total invincibility. For Danny, however, it’s all part of rap’s natural evolution. “People weren’t being themselves for so long,” he says. “You had rappers pretendin’ to be gangstas and, y’know, they weren’t really gangstas. People used to just go along with whatever the big trend was at the time, but with hip-hop being so vast now and there being so many outlets for it – thanks to the internet – it’s easier for rappers to just be themselves, because the people who’ll relate to their particular take on rap can find them now. And not everyone can relate to being a gangsta.”
Does Danny feel fortunate to have broken through just as hip-hop was broadening its horizons and reaching out to new audiences? “Oh, definitely. I came through at a time when people were starting to be a little more open-minded about hip-hop. Look at how South By Southwest started incorporating hip-hop, when a few years ago it was wall-to-wall bands. Look at Drake: he’s the biggest rapper in the world right now and the type of stuff he does… Well, it just wouldn’t have worked back in the ’90s, y’know?”
However, says Danny, while the internet has expanded hip-hop’s borders, its ADHD nature has also made it increasingly rare for fans to properly immerse themselves in new releases. “When I was comin’ up we only had, like, 15 rappers at any one time. You’d have maybe one album drop a month and you either liked it or you didn’t, but at least you got to live with that music for a month until the next album. But now somethin’ drops every three days, y’know? And so people don’t really respect the music like they used to. People give music a coupla weeks, then it’s on to the next. That’s the one thing I don’t like about hip-hop right now: how fast people think they can digest stuff. My music, you need to live with it. It takes a few listens to click with people.”
The internet has also rendered hip-hop’s old geographical divisions meaningless, which, reckons Danny, has led to widespread homogeny. “Now you get kids from Detroit sounding like they’re from Atlanta. Everyone losin’ their culture. I think hip-hop should be segregated a bit. When I was coming up Dungeon Family didn’t look like Wu-Tang; Wu-Tang didn’t look like Death Row… “I’m not hatin’ on it,” he shrugs, “but that’s what the internet did – merged everything together. Everybody look the same, rap the same, sound the same.” Well… Not everybody.