By Adam Katzman
While the debate over selling art to save Detroit from bankruptcy rages, Danny Brown's music continues to pose the question of whether doing what you had to do to survive in a city with such deep infrastructural damage can even be alleviated by artistic output.
His new album Old is frontloaded with PTSD-laden confessionals of the horrors he witnessed growing up there. There's a Donald Goines-ian detail about having seen a dealer use his pitbulls on a junkie in "Torture" and, in "Wonderbread," a routine grocery trip dwarfs Bruce Wayne's origin story.
It's not bottomed out glimpses into the graphic effects of economic disparity and cheap drugs that gets South Floridians to leave Art Basel for a rap show in the middle of Fort Lauderdale though. The crowd's antic chants for "Danny!" suggested they were (validly) in it for getting turnt up.
SKYWLKR quelled the shouts by hyping up the crowd with a few songs that did some contextual dot-connecting for the rapper's coming set. Starting with the remix of Kanye's "You ain't got the answers, Sway" rant, the perils of a rapper hustling to make a dent in a largely racist fashion industry could be seen as a cautionary tale for a fashion-enthusiast like Danny. That is if he went from a well-versed spectator (himself formerly "living hostile just to cop some Aeropostale") to a producer. Similarly, Kanye's bold fonted, top-down statements about race and class on Yeezus are refracted through a myriad of grassroots short stories offered up on Old (the CCA/DEA line from "New Slaves" is bolstered by Danny's multiple fleshed out, prison or the grave-bound street tales).
An RL Grime remix of Chief Keef's "Love Sosa" provided a good example of the musical landscape Danny is navigating. One where suburban white kids could separate the rappers from the beats and re-sell it as trap music, as if it wasn't already self-identified that way. Where the novelty of a rapper working with electronic artists (being signed to dance and extremely rap savvy label Fool's Gold) ignores how techno was something started by black DJs in Detroit. Danny's own father was a house DJ back in the day. "25 Bucks," Brown's collaboration with Purity Ring, sounds less like a new chapter in indie Goth and more a continuation of early detroit techno artist The Infiltrator's equally haunted "Something Happened on Dollis Hill."
Songs like those were absent as his set completely eschewed the weary, teeth-gritting introspection of "Side A" (or fiend lit classics like "Scrap or Die") and went straight for the adrenalized hysteria of "Side B," which can only be seen as escapist if you ignore the subtext.
Danny came out in red leather jeans and a black leather shirt creating a continuum between Eddie Murphy's Delerious and Kanye's dark twisted fashion fantasy. His carnival barker-esque vacillations from pterodactyl yapping to demonically possessed growling were turnt up to the point where if you turnt up any further, we could easily turn up dead. The joke would be on us, since Danny has a survivor's stamina.
At some point, the animations in the back looked like an unfurling red satin bedsheet, as if we'd slipped into Al Pacino's taunting grips in The Devil's Advocate. It was telling that one of the only audible phrases -- amidst the stomping volume of the beats which hit A$AP Rocky and Skrillex "Wild for the Night" stadium dubstep rap at some points, and the near distorted vocal levels -- was "Gotta get away/I think I need to pray/Please, oh, Lord, I need your help again/took too many pills, and I think I hear my heart beating" off of "Smoking and Drinking." The titular phrase was done to death like it was Leaving Las Vegas.
The trainwreck level of partying, with anxiety about fainting, throwing up in a sink, and existential musings about even being able to move and the significance of it or lack thereof was represented in "Dip." The song's bit about thizzing and its attendant dance both gravely acknowledges its progenitor, Mac Dre, both in the context of his death and also in connecting the song's frenetic beat to rap's inherently danceable history. His twice pantomimed lyrics were: sniffing cocaine and a gunshot to the head for "straight hit to the brain."
Not to make it all sound grave, dude is a charmer, taking offers from the crowd and offering wry commentary on it in the process. Since "Blunt After Blunt" is fun in the theoretical abstract, he offered the rejoinder that, "You paid money to see me, I smoke that, and I forget every lyric I wrote. If that happens, It's her fault, and y'all gotta help and be my hype man."
It was almost easy to forget that his electrified stage presence was solo, without the usual rap show problem of some hanger-on stepping all over his lines. At some point Danny recalled dope fiend punching bag Mizzle from Cam'Ron's Purple Haze, talking about "rolling that shit, lighting that shit, and smoking that shit." It became another reminder of Brown's ability to juggle multiple perspectives with equal sympathy for each.