Above the Radar: Danny Brown breaks new ground with bizarre style and raunchy lyrics

Taryn Erhardt/Senior Staff
Danny Brown, a Detroit rapper, performed on Lower Sproul last week.

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Editor’s note: This feature is one of a two-part series analyzing new shifts in hip-hop as demonstrated by two rising artists (one established, the other underground) that deny conventions on the national stage and in our community: Danny Brown and Zachg.

On the 2002 track “Oops (Oh My)”, Tweet’s skirt accidentally drops to her feet and “Oops,” Fabolous raps, “There goes my kids all over your face.” Ten years later, “Tweet’ has its own disambiguation page on Wikipedia. It’s first and foremost a bird vocalization, then a “post made on the microblogging site Twitter” and thirdly, the name of an R&B artist. All three are relevant to rapper Danny Brown. Sometimes his raps are spit in bird-style squawks. He would “fuck a female MC and a pop artist / … dick so big stretch marks on her jaw.” There wouldn’t be a need to apologize to Brown for bad aim. Crispy, post-coital hair is his look.

Music journalists, fans and his label are fixated on this aesthetic; Danny Brown is fixated on their fixation. He thinks Wiz Khalifa is the least stylish rapper out there (“He just looks like everything is free,”) and raps that  “He made ‘Black and Yellow’, / I’mma make it black and emo.” On stage, he rattles around a cage of steely electro blips with animalistic rap. Brown’s got a hyena cackle of a laugh and off-pitch whining that starts to sound very duck-like.        His label Fool’s Gold writes that Brown “is able ignite buzz without calculatedly chasing it down.” They’re chasing the narrative of the unself-conscious artist, implicitly holding up a crucifix at notoriously manufactured artists like Lana Del Rey. One of those igniters of buzz is Pitchfork, which gave Brown’s album XXX an 8.2. He claims they regretted the score. “They said, if they could review it again, they would give it a lot higher review. So to me, I just feel like I’m cooler than them right now cause I made an album that they slipped on and then they had to apologize to me about it,” he said. He buys into Pitchfork as the barometer of “coolness” in indie rap. He’ll get bumped “a couple extra” decimal points next album.

In piquing the interest of an avant-garde-hungry indie audience, Danny Brown violates many of the codes of mainstream rap. In April, he tweeted: “wiggers hate me cause i dont dress like a nigga … black bloggers hate me cause im loved by white music journalists.” Brown hopes his refusal to sign with a major label will allow him to continue to thrive in this discord between the rap status quo and “progressive indie” expectations. “I might not sell a lot of records, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be a cult hero,” he said. “… I’d just rather be like that, then to be like, cool with lame people. That’s what I’ve been seeing a lot lately, like lame music fans.”

Before his ASUC Superb show on Lower Sproul April 20, he sat in the corner of a Berkeley classroom. A salami sandwich on white bread lay half eaten on a table in front of him, pulled from a food spread of Trader Joe’s-style junk food. Really, he was fiending for “Garden Wheat Thins. Those joints, I could kinda smash a box of those quick.”

Occasionally I could see him browsing Twitter on his iPhone. When I checked the site later, he’d re-tweeted about 15 people. He tweeted a picture of his tall t-shirt, thigh-hugging capri track pants and sneakers with fat blue tongues lagging out; all pulled from the Adidas Originals x Jeremy Scott collection. A follower commented underneath the post, “Jeremy Scott #fag.”

Brown’s politics — for example, his view that there should be stricter domestic violence laws —  also lie on the fringes of the mainstream rap industry. “That shit should seriously be like felonies. Like hitting females. Any type of abuse toward women, should be more so than murder!” In spite of this view, lyrically on the track “30” he “fucked a pregnant bitch, saved money on her abortion.” There’s not a single song on the album without creatively rendered sexual domination platitudes. The dissonance makes his claim that he couldn’t give a lecture like Lil B because, “I’m just drugs, video games, and sex, if you wanna talk about those,” — an essentialization of his identity.

The song “30” and his album title “XXX” specifically refer to Brown’s age. He has almost 10 years on the other nine rappers in XXL’s 2012 Freshman Class, blazing a trail for rappers like Zachg, a rising Bay Area artist who is pursuing a similar audience.Forty minutes later at Brown’s show, “Virgin Mary doing lines in the pick up / Make Sarah Palin deep-throat ‘til she hiccup” drew a mixed reaction from the crowd. His flow is rubbery and the beats muffled on “Pac Blood,” the cackles of the crowd becoming a quasi-laugh track. One couple exchanged a meaningful look and head out. Tall and lanky, Zachg stood backstage with a camera out, grinning.

“He’s been a big kind of inspiration for me. You know he’s someone who’s the same age as me — which is really viewed as ‘too old for rap’ who is making a name for himself solely on being himself,” Zachg said. “… I think in the sense of brands we are kind of similar. Both kind of nerdy, but aware of fashion and what’s hip, and accessible but still kinda unacceptable.”