Before Danny Brown will speak on the record, he wants some “Pee-wee.” What he means, as he squawks the melody from “Tequila,” by the Champs, is the round blue bottle of Don Julio he produces from his black leather backpack. The 35-year-old rapper moves his 6’2” frame in a lanky, significantly slower rendition of Paul Reubens' spastic barroom dance from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. When he drinks from the bottle, his Adam’s apple elevators up and down in his throat like a cartoon. It’s not quite 2 p.m. on a Monday and this isn’t a bar; it’s the Corktown neighborhood in his birthplace of Detroit. Outside of an old church that currently houses a recording studio called Assemble Sound, Danny dances in the sunshine hitting the sidewalk. He’s ready now.
Those who have followed his career know that there’s no rushing Danny, real name Daniel Sewell, anymore. Success eluded him for so long, the struggle for it became the dominant theme of his career, giving his work an unhinged, obsessive quality. He spent a tumultuous decade trying to make it, including eight months in county lockup after violating his parole following an arrest for loitering with possession of marijuana. Couple that with numerous Greyhound trips to New York in pursuit of a G-Unit Records deal that never materialized, and Danny’s life hasn’t been easy. “I spent so much time trying to kill myself out of depression for not being where I wanted to be in life,” he says.
You can’t rush him now because he’s relishing his success. The result is his latest album Atrocity Exhibition (out now), which he spent years writing. Sonically it follows dissimilar threads of inspiration, from Joy Division to ghettotech. Lyrically, it documents frustration and other disquieting feelings while also taking a hard look at the youth-driven industry he ostensibly exists within.
On the most memorable songs from the uncertain chapter of his life, there's a level of reckless determination that makes him seem nearly alien. On “30,” the final song on his breakthrough 2011 mixtape XXX, it sounds like his quest to become a rapper has driven him mad. The song, composed of just one verse, opens in typical Danny fashion, with a crude and clever joke—“Sent ya bitch a dick pic and now she needs glasses”—before boiling over into a berserk defense of his existence. Over discordant synths, Danny’s voice transforms from his trademark shrill sing-song into a hoarse snarl, like his voice is bottoming out alongside his life:
I never learned to rap, always knew how
Ever since a nigga 8, knew what I would do now
When I turned 28, they’re like What you gon’ do now?
And now a nigga 30, so I don’t think ya heard me,
That the last 10 years I been so fucking stressed
Tears in my eyes, let me get this off my chest
The thoughts of no success got a nigga chasing death
Doing all these drugs, hope I OD’ing next, triple X.
“30” is one of the great rap performances of 2011, if not the decade. The same year he released it, he signed with A-Trak’s New York boutique label Fool’s Gold. Two years later, the label put out his proper debut, Old, which balanced disturbing memories of his traumatic childhood with his darkly comic wit. Danny's warped humor and fondness for sex and illegal substances led A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad to call him the hip-hop Richard Pryor.
Danny is now living comfortably in a suburban home about 40 minutes outside of Detroit with his longtime girlfriend and two cats. He runs with Eminem rep Paul Rosenberg’s Goliath Management and has signed with storied English indie label Warp, known best as the home of experimental electronic acts like Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada. The stakes are no longer life or death. He made it—meaning he’s free to play around and make a record driven by something other than fear of aging out of the rap game. But if you’re looking for caffeinated party starters like “Dip” or “Handstand”—staples of his popular festival sets—you’ll need to go elsewhere. A strange engine powers this new project.
Atrocity Exhibition is a churning, challenging, oftentimes brilliant album. He describes the sound as the culmination “of all the ideas I had when I was making albums like Old or XXX. This is the first time I ever had a budget like this, to clear all the samples.” It allegedly took $70,000 to settle that particular bill. “That’s what makes my music: the details.”
With its Detroit techno-indebted production (his father was a DJ in the early scene), difficult to place samples (one of the notes from my first listen reads “surf rock from hell”), and dense rhymes (“No time soon in the City of Boom/Doomed from the time we emerged from the womb/So to cope, drugs we consume”), Atrocity Exhibition feels personal. Not because it’s frequently frank lyrics are like diary entries, but because it’s hard to imagine that any time was spent fretting over how a casual listener might react. This record wasn’t made to please anyone but the artist.
“A lot of music I remember sounding weird to me, in a year wound up being my favorite,” he says. “We live in an age where people listen to something for two weeks and then they throw it to the side. I make records you gotta listen to at least five times to even understand what’s going on. The longer you live with it, the more it’s gonna open up. You’ll get rewarded for the effort you put into it, you know?”
He cocks his head and then goes still to take a sip of coffee, pausing deliberately like a college professor. Much of talking with Danny is figuring out what’s just a joke, what’s humor acting as lubrication for a rough truth, and what’s something else. Here, he’s nothing if not serious.
An elder statesman by hip-hop’s youthful standards, Danny isn’t reluctant to share what he’s learned during those years spent grinding for his breakthrough. “At this point in my life, I have more creativity than ambition,” he says. “But a lot of the kids feel like they gotta record a song every day, put a song on SoundCloud every week, make a video every month. They have more ambition than creativity, and feel like the more work they do, the more reciprocated they gonna get. If you nurture your talent, you might not regret what you put out five years ago. I can’t imagine if you was listening to some of the songs I was making when I was 18 or 19. I’d be cringing and ready to die right now”—he lets out a stuttering exhalation of a laugh—“you know what I’m saying?”
Hip-hop has long privileged the unpredictable and shit-stirring tendencies of youth over something as common as gray-haired wisdom. Danny understands, and likes to think of himself as a kid. “I watch cartoons and play video games,” he says. “The same person I was at 13, I am at 35.”
But for all his goofing around, for all the drug talk and comical descriptions of sex on record, Danny has a real sense of ethics when it comes to his profession. On Twitter, he recently lambasted rappers for making music about drugs they have no real experience with. “Stop rapping about drugs you don't do promoting usage of something that can potentially ruin someone's life you fucking lame ass niggas,” he typed.
Elaborating on the tweet, Danny isn’t judgmental: “You can rap about whatever you want to rap about. Just make sure you tell kids the other side. If you gonna tell them about being high, tell them about the hangover.” Atrocity Exhibition opens with “Downward Spiral,” a song that describes the sweaty, nervous comedown from MDMA, when your brain’s been wrung out and the world has lost its luster. He’s lived his words.
Generational strife, especially as it involves anti-intellectualism, looms large in practically all conversations about hip-hop in 2016, sparked by comments from Atlanta upstart Lil Yachty, among others. In August, Yachty told Billboard that he "honestly couldn't name five songs" by Tupac Shakur or the Notorious B.I.G. Danny is known for his diverse listening habits (he told Complex in 2013 that his favorite album is the psychedelic folk rock album Forever Changes, released in 1967 by L.A. band Love) and he thinks of himself a “student” of rap history. “With the Lil Yachty thing, I can’t really say that I’m mad at him for not knowing any Tupac or Biggie,” he says. “The question is, ‘Do you know five OutKast songs?’ If you don’t know five OutKast songs, then we have a problem. If you don’t know where you come from, you can’t know where you’re going.”
For Danny, then, this particular dilemma seems to be more a matter of taste. But nothing about his tone suggests that he’s upset by Yachty’s attitude, or by the perceived lack of integrity among younger artists that many older heads harp on. Unlike irresponsible drug rap, which Danny takes personally, he seems beyond this particular argument.
Nonetheless, on “Hell for It,” the final song on Atrocity Exhibition, Danny lashes out at the lack of respect for lyricism he sees today. The moment echoes André 3000’s verse on Frank Ocean’s latest album, Blonde, which expressed shock at superstar rappers who use ghostwriters. Conversely, Danny’s not surprised by ghostwriting allegations. “I do my homework. I know the Sugarhill Gang didn’t write ‘Rapper’s Delight.’ The first big rap song wasn’t wrote,” he says cackling. “It came in the game like that—that’s the way it’s always been. In pop music, most of them people ain’t writing their songs. Rap music ain’t any different; there’s a lot of money getting made over here.”
All the same, he admires André. “I look up to André, I just love that guy,” Danny says, explaining that when Blonde dropped, some Twitter users mistook the Outkast rapper's voice for his. “I’m not even that crispy with double time. Like, he got every word perfect,” Danny says, clearly impressed, and comfortable talking shop.
While Andre didn’t drop any names on his Blonde verse, on “Hell for It,” Danny calls out Iggy Azalea: “Respect for lyricism in this game, ain’t none left/Have a bitch like Iggy think she sicker than me/And that’s so fucked up, that’s just how this shit be.” When pressed, he says he used her name because it rhymed. He’s smiling because he knew the question was coming, and possibly because he knows how improbable his explanation sounds; his rigorous songwriting process includes more time massaging lines at his computer than screwing around in the studio.
There are a few possible explanations. The diss could be a potshot, akin to Biggie dissing Kwame on “Unbelievable.” Or it might be in retaliation to comments Iggy made about the 2012 XXL Freshman cover, which she appeared on alongside Danny and Macklemore, among others. Iggy said that Macklemore was the only rapper on the cover with substance. Or it could be that as a white woman with a phony accent, Iggy is just an easy target.
“It just rhymed,” he says again, unwavering.
It’s tempting to lean hard into the now commonplace “I give no fucks” rapper narrative to make sense of the moment. But what makes Danny a treasure is that he does care. He seems to care about music more than anything else. (Trying to get him to do something “fun” on camera later in the day is met with empty looks and gruff muttering about just wanting to talk about music.) “I love rap music. This is my life,” he says. If the sound of Atrocity Exhibition is a reflection of that life, then Danny’s creative space knows little peace.
When asked what he worries about at this age that he couldn’t have imagined bothering him a decade ago, he defaults to showman Danny, who refuses to hide his natural, animated abilities as an entertainer. “Mice,” he says, doing a bit like a stand-up comic, giving you the punchline before the unvarnished truth. “I don’t wanna lose this job,” he admits. “It took so much time trying to be a rapper, and now that I am one, I gotta stay here. I don’t wanna lose this. I love it too much.”