Since exploding into popular consciousness with XXX, a 2011 masterwork detailing his crazed life of sex, pills, and weed, Danny Brown has served as a lodestone for modern rap’s perilous embrace of hard drugs. The Detroit rapper utilized a manic, strangely hyper cadence seemingly fueled by too much Molly. More importantly, he created music with fearlessness, seemingly unconcerned with how the oft-conservative rap world perceived him. When EDM soared in popularity, he penned Old, a wildly exuberant 2013 valentine to getting wasted as an elderly thirtysomething MC while collaborating with alt-pop innovators like Charli XCX and Purity Ring. He subsequently used the album’s top 20 success on the Billboard charts as his passport to festival stages around the world, all while gathering celebrity admirers like Jonah Hill.
Then, last March, Brown used an episode of his podcast, The Danny Brown Show, to complain that Warp Records was stalling the release of Quaranta, an album mostly written at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021. “Where’s the urgency?” he asked during a drunken tirade. “Why y’all holdin’ me up for?” Days later, he checked himself into rehab. Now — and after Scaring the Hoes, a deliriously glitch-y detour with underground rapper/producer JPEGMAFIA released earlier this year — Quaranta finally arrives with a drug-and-alcohol free Brown in tow.
Brown has always rapped about the physical and spiritual lows of addiction, as evinced by 2016’s grimly hallucinogenic Atrocity Exhibition. However, gleeful details of how snorting grams of cocaine and crushed up Adderall leaves him horny and cracked-out have been part of his rollercoaster appeal. On Quaranta, he strips that out those dopamine rushes. The first half of Quaranta is fun enough as he spits over fuzzy and psychedelic production by Quelle Chris & Chris Keys, Kassa Overall, and the Alchemist. “Half the shit I say can’t be understood by executives,” Brown boasts on “Dark Sword Angel,” which unfolds over a hypnotic prog-rock loop. But the second half is notably muted. The tone isn’t the nervy, enervated feeling of bottoming out from too much booze and blow. It’s just wide awake and stone-cold sober.
Appropriately, the last five songs on Quaranta feel like a AAA session defined by confessions and naked vulnerability. Brown experienced a traumatic breakup while making Quaranta, so he uses “Down Wit It” to reprise a Scarface line from Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.” “I had a woman down with me/But to me, she was down to get me/She helped me out in this shit/Now I’m realizing that I love her,” he raps while admitting that the split was largely a consequence of his cheating and substance abuse. He conjures witty wordplay on “Celibate” as he raps over a Samiyam beat loop, “I used to sell a bit/But I don’t fuck around no more, I’m celibate/Had me trapped in that cell a bit/Locked up with some pimps that told me, ‘Sell a bitch’.” Meanwhile, his vocals are plainspoken, and bereft of the adrenalized flow he used on his best-known work. Comparing himself to Miles Davis over Kaelin Ellis’ soulful and vibe-y “Shakedown,” Brown raps, “I feel like Miles without Frances.”
Quaranta shows that Brown has lost none of his musical acuity. Like post-punk icons Hüsker Du in the 80s, Brown knows how to assemble a compelling project, leaving fans to argue which one is the prettiest of the bunch. Memorable moments abound like “Y.B.P.” (acronym for “Young Black Poor”), where he and Bruiser Wolf from his Bruiser Brigade crew rock over SKYWLKR and Kassa Overall’s Foster Sylvers loop. He picks apart sociological phenomena with sharp wit. On “Jenn’s Terrific Vacation” he decries gentrification by wryly noting, “Cameras on the corner/Now they feel safe.” On “Y.B.P.,” he recalls childhood deprivations with the summary, “Every day was like a test/If you fail, it’s death.”
Still, as Brown strives for a break from his party-hearty XXX persona, one wonders if the audience, unfairly or not, will view Quaranta as a comedown from those gloriously debauched years. Perhaps that’s for the best. No matter if his fans embrace this newly restrained alt-rap hero or not, it’s better to be alive and underrated than glorified and dead.