Review: Danny Brown – XXX

Listening to the first few lines of Danny Brown’s XXX is enough to put off even open-minded hip hop fans. Brown’s voice is strained and high-pitched, his flow tense and frenetic, delivered over a chopped beat, gritty and unforgiving. Brown himself, currently seen on stage with Versace skinnies, a swoop haircut and half his head shaved, doesn’t fit the rapper aesthetic. But, as the Detroit MC’s rhymes fly by, consternation soon melts into attentiveness, and ultimately, to amazement. Brown is uncannily on-beat, and chameleon-like in his delivery, be it on the drug-addled hyperactivity of brag tracks early in the mix (‘Pac Blood’, ‘Monopoly’) or the hungover street-wise flow of later confessionals like ‘DNA’ and ‘Scrap or Die’.

XXX reads like an amphetamine trip: scarily focused on the red-and-wide-eyed first half, sobering up to into muted but heartfelt solemnity in the second. This shift – vocal, stylistic, emotional – gives Brown the appearance of multiple personality, mirrored by the dual interpretation of the release’s title: either the fast-lane lifestyle of  ‘Triple X’, or the coming-of-age introspection of ‘Thirty’ (Danny’s birthday was in March).

The early tracks are utterly mesmerizing, owing in part to the dark and skeletal production – courtesy of Detroit up-and-comers like Skywlkr and Brandun Deshay – but primarily due to Brown’s hugely impressive (and admittedly adderall-fuelled) flow: in his words, “So many lines you can barcode it.” ‘Die Like a Rockstar’ is an anthem of overdose brinksmanship that name-drops everyone from Keith Moon to River Phoenix (“Experiment so much it’s a miracle I’m living”), ‘Pac Blood’ claims Brown’s rhymes are so authentic they could only have been penned in Shakur’s blood.

But the energy dip of the latter half is counterbalanced by Brown’s sober realism and his gritty portrait of Detroit life. ‘Scrap or Die’ and ‘Fields’ describe the helplessness of living in a city in steady disintegration, reified in the empty houses and tattered couches lining its streets. Intoxication by whatever means available is temporary respite, and Brown name checks everything from Newports to Hennessy to crack, but he admits addiction. ‘Party All the Time’ is ostensibly about a female acquaintance, but one gets the sense Brown is also describing himself: “Lost in the fog, head in the smoke, laughing at the world ‘cause her life is a joke.”