In 2019, foundational trap artist Future released the album Save Me. It was a shocking departure from his usual output. Future specialized in spacey crooning about the usual rap fare. Women, drugs, alcohol, and money, all over syrupy instrumentals. This was fitting, as his primary muse is lean. He loves lean, it is the main thing he raps about. Save Me broke away from this, and gave us a short seven tracks. Here, Future is crying for help, making clear that his years of self-destructive hedonism have broken him. I’m not a huge fan of Future, but thankfully, he seems to have gotten himself together. Save Me rests as an interesting moment of lucidity for the artist (and the best album he’s ever done.) I bring this up because, to my utter dismay, the exact same situation has played out with one of my favorite artists, with Danny Brown’s recent album Quaranta. In a sharp contrast to Save Me, I think Quaranta may be the worst album in his discography.
Danny is hard to explain. He has the same sense of hedonism as Future or someone like Travis Scott, except much more sinister, with lots of vivid descriptions of addiction, poverty, and drug dealing. His instrumentals are more intense and overwhelming, and his lyricism is much sharper; “I could sell honey to a bee– in the fall time, make trees take back their leaves” is one of my favorite lines ever, off the song “Ain’t it Funny,” the best track on his 2016 album Atrocity Exhibition (one of the best rap albums of the 2010’s).
There had been no sign of trouble for Danny. In fact, he was in his musical prime, with an incredibly impressive stretch of albums, capped off by this year’s Scaring the Hoes, a collaboration with underground contemporary JPEGMAFIA. Quaranta abruptly ends this prime, and sets the tone immediately with the opening title track. “This rap shit done saved my life, and f*cked it up at the same time…you 40 still doing this shit? When you gon’ stop? God gon’ make you quit,” he raps within the first minute of the album. And this hit me like a ton of bricks. Time sneaks up on you, and you often don’t notice its passing until you see how old other people have gotten. I did not know Danny Brown was 40 (42, actually.) A lot of rappers find themselves in this position, Drake is 37 and still singing about going to clubs and hooking up with sorority girls and stuff. I don’t think anybody is “too old” for anything these days, but “40 year old rapper” is an understandable thing to be insecure about.
It isn’t until later in the song that things are clarified: “a lot changed since triple-X came out . Bought a few cars and a house. Almost had a spouse, got caught up, she was out.”
Ah, okay, wow, I get it now, this is a breakup album. Something that teenage pop stars do. Never in a million years did I think Danny would release something like this. Plenty of rappers write about relationships and heartbreak, but Danny has never been concerned with this subject matter. He has been laser-focused on partying for over a decade– any mention of women in his songs are presented as ill-advised hookups. “Once had a hoe, ain’t had money for the room, so we did the humpty-hump in the Burger King bathroom,” is a real line on a real single called “Dirty Laundry,” one of Danny’s more lyrically conceptual tracks. The fact that this person was in a committed long-term relationship and sincerely cared about someone is…well, nice, but surprising.
And before I get into the meat of the issue, just a quick review: the album isn’t great. 4/10. The aforementioned opening track has boring production, centered around a spaghetti western guitar riff that doesn’t really work with everything else. And Danny’s flow is very awkward and amateurish, in fact, it’s like this the whole time. His albums are typically dense and filled with bangers, but now he’s doing the whole raw, stripped-back thing, and it’s not working for him. There are only a couple of notable songs. “Dark Sword Angel” is easily the best. Danny has always had a Jekyll & Hyde thing with his voice, using his normal tone for more grounded introspection, and this maniacal, high pitched, throaty whine when he’s rapping as something close to a character. I think most fans prefer the latter, and this is the only time it’s let loose. “Jenn’s Terrific Vacation” is a clever song about housing injustice, but it’s not very subtle and the title does most of the work. Beyond that? I like the boom-bap beat on “Ain’t my Concern,” I guess.
Quality aside, things are clarified on the song “Down Wit It.” “I had a woman down with me, but to me, she was down to get me– helped me out in this shit, now I’m realizing that I love her,” he raps lazily over a beat too boring to describe. This paranoia regarding his partner was caused by alcoholism; “tryna kill my pain, so I drink,” “now it’s all over, can’t stay sober.”
I mentioned before that Danny’s crazy voice is “something close to a character,” because it’s always been clear that it’s a theatrical reflection of his real self. He has real struggles with substance abuse, likely caused by past traumas and worsened by his rapper lifestyle.
I’m hesitant to use phrases like “the culture,” because it is incredibly corny for a white kid in a New Jersey suburb to scold grown men for their life choices. But when rapper after rapper after rapper gets shot, sent to jail, overdoses, or otherwise falls into despair as a direct result of their career path, you would think that there would be some shift in the collective consciousness. Some realization that “hey, maybe we don’t actually have to do this stuff, we can just pretend.” Future, old buddy, old pal, you don’t actually have to drink gallons of lean. Danny, you don’t have to be a psychotic coke fiend.
I don’t mean to trivialize addiction, or suggest that it’s a choice, or something you can simply opt out of. But frankly, this is getting ridiculous. The trend of prominent artists in this space succumbing to these vices is deeply concerning. Addiction is not a witch’s curse, you have the power to stop doing things that harm you.
I wish I could talk about Danny’s specific situation in the context of the album, but brief mentions on two tracks are all we get. In a recent feature by The Guardian, it’s revealed that this album has been shelved for the better part of three years, mostly written and inspired by the quarantine era of 2020, and Danny is pretty much okay now. This is all well and good, but makes me question why this album was released now. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been released at all.