25 Nov 2023

Review: Quaranta by Danny Brown

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 25 November 2023
Danny Brown

Photo: Peter Beste

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As André 3000 reflected on during some of his New Blue Sun interviews, hip-hop has traditionally been a young man’s game. In 2013, rapper Danny Brown released an album called Old, at which time he would have been 32. 

Ten years on, he’s just put one out called Quaranta - that’s Italian for ‘forty’ - after checking into rehab in March. For an artist known as much for his unfiltered lyrics as his acrobatic vocal style, that’s a big deal. And for a self-reflective collection of songs about hitting rock bottom, this is about as honest as it gets.

Brown’s image on record was, for a long time, that of a party animal, spinning wild tales of substance abuse, often with chilly electronic beats to fit the rave atmosphere. In hindsight it feels sadly predictable that he would end up here, with multiple songs on Quaranta referencing a need to quit drinking after burning through friendships. The music industry is often implicated, but he doesn’t let himself off the hook.

In his pre-rap days he spent time in jail for dealing drugs, and channelled his experiences into what he calls “trauma dumps” on record. He told The Guardian he embraced the things that had kept him from a record deal - like his missing teeth and skinny physique - and this approach led to his success, and the idea of him as an addled lunatic. 

The mania still appears - it’s a huge part of his appeal - but since 2019’s U Know What I’m Sayin, executive produced by rap royalty Q-Tip, he’s tempered it with a more old school approach. Brown said working with the veteran MC completely changed the way he works.

‘Y.B.P.' touches on Brown’s early years, with lyrics about food stamps, an aunt with a black eye, and “kids raising kids, all trying to be grown”, over what might be the album’s most buoyant beat. It’s supplied by Skywlkr, producer for Brown’s old rap crew Bruiser Brigade, who never lets it get too upbeat, befitting the subject. 

On ‘Jenn’s Terrific Vacation’ Brown’s voice jumps up to its familiar nasal yelp, as he spits about gentrification, and how an influx of wealthy white neighbours can lead to a neighbourhood’s original tenants getting priced out

In his Guardian interview, Danny Brown talks about his family asking for help putting on his aunt’s funeral, and having to tell them that, despite his success, he couldn’t. He had, in his words, sniffed it all up. 

There are moments of fun on Quaranta, though none compare to his other 2023 album, a collaboration with JPEGMafia. What's most striking about these songs is that, in a genre often known for its braggadocio, Brown is willing to be truly self-critical, and release it to the public.