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Danny Brown's clean slate

"I'm better than ever," Brown says. "It just took some time for me to get back to being me again."
Peter Beste
"I'm better than ever," Brown says. "It just took some time for me to get back to being me again."

Age has always been embedded into the narrative of Danny Brown's music. He was a late bloomer in the industry who once titled an album Old. These days, he's relishing his adulthood, welcoming the accumulated wisdom it brings and hoping to impart that wisdom on younger artists who might listen. His new album, Quaranta, commemorating the rapper turning 40 years old, opens imitating a critique from his public: "N**** you 40, still doing this s***?" Not only is he still doing it, he's as refined at his craft as ever — with sharp perspective after surviving formidable obstacles.

Quaranta chronicles Brown's journey starting from scratch after substance abuse wrecked his life. He worried it might be his last album. "I was really just thinking about my mortality a lot," he says on a call with NPR. "I was in a dark place." The album is pensive and desolate. He's reckoning with all that he's lost, and, after finally going sober, figuring out how to stay joyful while remaining present. "I had a lot of fun, don't get me wrong," he admits. "But when is the party going to be over? You can't be 40-years-old and still in the club. The party don't have to stop, but the party is gonna stop you."

A former drug dealer, Brown's work on the mixtape circuit in the late 2000s led to a G-Unit deal in 2010, which, he claimed, fell through because 50 Cent didn't like that he wore skinny jeans. That same year, The Hybrid started his transition into an internet-rap mainstay. In 2011, as a 30-year-old feeling like his window was closing, he signed with the A-Trak label Fool's Gold and released his breakthrough project XXX, a freewheeling mixtape that revealed an eccentric personality. He traded traditional braids for a swooping, unwieldy haircut that made him look like an anime character, and curled his lips to reveal a snaggle-toothed smile. He introduced one of the most elastic voices in all of hip-hop, effortlessly shifting between a high-pitched shriek, a menacing growl and a deadpan flow at a bar's notice. There are plenty YouTube compilations of Brown's laugh, a charming, cartoonish cackle that punctuated playful, mischievous rhymes. But his uniqueness was more than aesthetics: He oscillated between rapping about Detroit poverty, cunnilingus and, perhaps most often, recreational drug use and its effects.

A rep as an indie-rap darling followed, and Brown developed a sonically diverse palette, rhyming over soul samples and boom bap, prog rock and techno. He chopped his hair to a more manageable taper and got a new set of pearly whites. After landing a Pee-wee Herman-meets-Eric André-styled variety show called Danny's House on VICELAND, becoming a festival mainstay and collaborating with Eminem and Kendrick Lamar, he had gone from toiling in the underground rap scene to having what seemed like a perfect balance: independent freedom, critical acclaim and mainstream access.

But behind the scenes, his recreational drug use deteriorated into addiction. Even though he'd sold hard drugs in Detroit, he never did them — and the rampant partying in a different community left him in uncharted terrain. "The whole electronic music scene is a lot of different drugs that we wouldn't be doing in the hood. Once you start experimenting with that s***, it's just a different lifestyle," he says. "The Danny Brown that sold crack would have never f****** did molly and coke." Using drugs in Detroit carried shameful stigmas, but in electronic music, it was an element of the party.

His music reflected his descent: 2016's Atrocity Exhibition illustrated druggy depression in harrowing, unsettling terms with darker sounds. When his friend Mac Miller died from an overdose induced by fentanyl in 2018, shortly after they were supposed to hang out, he battled fears that he would also be unknowingly dosed. "One bad pack could be the end of your life," Brown says. "That was something I worried about all the time, even with my friends."

As he worked on 2019's uknowwhatimsayin?, a back-to-basics record executive produced by Q-Tip, he curbed his alcoholism, in part because the producer wasn't having it. "Q-Tip was like 'you gotta stop coming over here getting so drunk.' " But old habits die hard. When he moved to downtown Detroit, the city's nightlife encouraged relapses: "I would go and get drunk by mistake. I might go to the Walmart or something to pick up a few health products, then I end up stopping at a bar on my way home to get a drink," he remembers. "Then one drink turns to eight drinks. Before I know it, I'm out all night, meeting some random person and doing blow in the bathroom." His infidelity led to a difficult breakup. And when the COVID pandemic led to shutdowns, and Brown was suddenly isolated, "stuck in this f****** penthouse or wherever the f***," he found himself sequestered: "That's when you realize you're lonely."

While recording Quaranta at his Bruiser Brigade studio in Detroit, he felt an unshakable sense of foreboding. "Making this album, I didn't know if I was gonna get a chance to make another one," he says. "At the rate I was going, something bad was gonna happen. I just knew that if I was going to continue to live the way that I was living during the process of recording that album, I wasn't gonna be here, or I'd get locked up, or that something bad was gonna happen if I didn't get myself out of that situation."

The album reflects that experience. The opening title track looks at the duality of music's impact on him: "This rap s*** done saved my life, and f***** it up at the same time," he says over gloomy guitars. The solemn soundbeds are reunions with longtime collaborators like Paul White, SKYWLKR, Quelle Chris and Chris Keys. His array of influences is still expansive — prog bands, Argentinian rockers and synth-pop acts are all sampled on the record — but the mood is sorrowful and jagged.

He was in a similarly twisted mind state while recording Scaring the Hoes, his joint album with friend JPEGMAFIA, released earlier this year. The music is full of ebullient rhymes with glitchy, discordant beats crafted by JPEG, pushing Brown's raps to their limits. But the conditions were just as chaotic as the sounds. The night where they recorded the title track, while "blackout drunk," he got the pair kicked out of three different Ubers. After trying to record the song's chorus at 1 a.m., after passing out, JPEG had to re-record it, because Brown's voice was slurring. "It was a lot of times where he came up here, I would get f***** up, and we ain't do s***," he says. "So I definitely give him all the love, because he was the one person that was really patient with me."

Art had become a job to Brown: He felt pressure to make trendier records to provide for loved ones, and lost the love for it as a creative outlet and a vehicle for joy. On "Hanami," Brown wallows in the reality of music not being fun anymore, before finding solace: "Even with all the stress, a n**** still feel blessed / Could've ended right there on them Clairmont steps." He explains the personal push of the lyric, "I was pretty much trying to give myself hope with that line. Like there's a reason you're still here, because it could have ended then," he says, referring to when he was running the streets in Detroit. "I didn't know that reason at the time that I was recording and making it, but now I feel like I do."

He needed to leave Detroit, and he found an opportunity, moving to Austin, Texas. He was dating a woman there, and he had developed a friendship with comedian Tom Segura, who had launched a pair of successful podcasts that he had planned to relocate to Austin. Segura had suggested that Brown start a podcast, and Brown said that he was down with the idea as long as Segura and his team would produce it.

It took a year after Brown moved for Segura and his team to establish their studios in Texas, and during that time, Brown had mostly dropped hard drugs, but Austin's robust bar scene pushed him further into alcoholism. He hit a public low when he recorded a podcast episode launching a #FreeDanny campaign, lashing out at his label and his management for not releasing the album that he had turned in. Fans began to lash out as well, but Brown defended his team, admitting that he recorded the podcast drunk and that he was checking into rehab soon. "When you're deep in your addiction, you blame everybody but you. And to be honest, I totally understand why it probably wasn't in the best interest for them to put me out at that time. I was a f****** maniac," he says. "Who knows what would have happened if I went back on the road in the state that I was in?"

Brown worked with MusiCares, a nonprofit founded by the Recording Academy that helps artists battling addiction, to find a rehab center. He's approaching 200 days sober, and he says that he hasn't only cut hard drugs and alcohol — he's also eliminated weed and cigarettes from his routine. He's feeling healthier now, and wants to use his experiences to guide other artists with similar problems. ("Everybody's not lucky enough to f****** pay $50,000 a month for rehab, you know?") And creatively speaking, he's discovered that his fears of needing drugs and alcohol to fuel his creativity were ill-founded. He thought that alcohol made him funnier, and had a list in his head of sober rappers who fell off. "Once I got clean, it was like, no, that's just you anyway! ... I'm better than ever. It just took some time for me to get back to being me again."

Quaranta is as measured of an album as Danny Brown has released. While his other records stretch the range of his voice to shrill highs, menacing lows and everything in between, most of his vocal performances here are steadier, a sign of the album's introspective tone. In opposition to Atrocity Exhibition's deranged, druggy haze, Quaranta finds Brown cleareyed, meditative and remorseful, sparse on punchlines and heavy on rumination. There are still bits of humor, as if he's finding his way back to having fun rapping in real time, but even seemingly light-hearted moments are tinged with darkness: The Alchemist-produced "Tantor" is energetic, but he repeats a line, "This that Black Lives Matter, still sniff cocaine / Paid for a therapist but I still ain't change." After the lawless vibe of Scaring The Hoes, Quaranta offers balance.

Brown used to rush through studio sessions, looking to get recording over with so he could get back to using. But now, he's able to focus for longer stretches of time and give his music more attention. He offers an informal executive producer credit to drummer and producer Kassa Overall, who helped morph demos of several Quaranta songs into more fully realized records. He often records early drafts of songs over his own beats, and gets other producers simply because they're better at making them. "It's almost like when a songwriter writes a song with an acoustic guitar, and then they take it to producers and they beef it up," he says. "I recorded this album over three or four years, but it's damn near five, seven, 10 versions of the song before it got to the point of what people are getting. I look at these albums like movies or books: You still need somebody to edit and direct. I'm just a writer at the end of the day."

Change also came on tour with JPEGMAFIA. Usually, trips on the road would be fueled by benders, as he would cyclically drink to calm his performance anxiety. "You want to have a drink to kill your nerves and be able to go out and have fun," he says. "Before you know it, a drink turns into a bottle, and then you're hungover the next day, so you gotta drink again just to feel right to be able to get on stage." But this year Brown saw the stage as refuge from the boredom and asylum for any personal issues.

Aided by a "sober group of friends," Brown has settled into a new way of living. "I'm drinking Red Bulls and s*** now," he says. "I guess for some reason, for me, it was so many sleepless nights getting high and s*** and being up for days. Now, I don't even smoke weed no more. But I'm always tired. Maybe my body's making up for lost time or something, but I can't even believe how much weed I used to smoke. What the f***?"

He's got a new outlook, and a new relationship with rap. "Problems that I thought I couldn't fix, I'd caused them myself. It was a big moment of clarity. Now, me being older, I just want to be happy. Not doing s*** that kills me, but doing s*** that makes me live. And music is one of those things that I feel like that keeps me young. And just the hip-hop lifestyle in general. You don't gotta be f***** up to live the hip-hop lifestyle."

Brown is on nicotine patches, and he casually hits a vape to mime old smoking habits, and to manage anxiety. It's all part of an ongoing process. "Life can't be better for me right now. Then I get that anxiety, where 's*** is going so good, something bad's gonna happen.' That impending doom feeling. But I tell myself, regardless of what's going on or what's going to happen, don't let anything f*** me up. Life is going to happen. But the biggest deal for me is my sobriety. Life's gonna happen, just work on it every day."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

William E. Ketchum III