Danny Brown’s Quaranta Review: All ‘Grown Up’

7/10

Quaranta, the sixth solo full-length album from beloved Detroit rapper Danny Brown, is clear about its status as a milestone. Press play and at once chirping samples translate its obscurant title into the witheringly familiar: forty – man’s getting old. Where 2012’s XXX, the record that made Brown’s name, played off the confluence of the rapper’s age and the international signal for sexual excess, here he is ‘Celibate’, distant, eyeing the rap game with a veteran’s gaze rather than the hunger of an outside talent yet to prove himself to the masses. The result is assured yet vulnerable; a muted missive from a true great that is somehow both brief and slow. Brown holds up the contradictions of rap and fame one by one before releasing them with a shrug: ‘Ain’t My Concern’.

That’s not to say there’s apathy here – more the resignation of a man that sees his place in the wider world for what it is. As Brown concedes on the title track: ‘This rap shit done saved my life / And fucked it up at the same time’. The wincing excess examined on his classic Atrocity Exhibition collided with the affirmation that he was ‘Lost in the streets, found on the beat’ from the 2019 track ‘Change Up’. As the record’s atmosphere threatens to cloud over, we’re launched into ‘Tantor’, Alchemist-produced single and a certified banger that introduces Brown’s ‘Mexican homie named Chinese Mike’ and leaves on a wailing Steve Carrell. Old memes that would sink any other artist melt into a tableau of avant-garde production and that inimitable squawking delivery. For every slug of self-reflection, there is the shock of soaring laughter.

The record finds its frequency from here on out, oscillating between pitched up-tempo cuts and woozy, low-toned musings. The plainspoken lyricism of ‘Ain’t My Concern’ is a departure in its directness (although some may miss the leftfield wordplay that remains Brown’s baseline), while ‘Dark Sword Angel’, despite its rolling kicks, feels like hearing him rap through the haze of a hot boxed room. These two tracks are the lowlights of the record, passing almost unnoticed before the welcome energy spike of ‘Y.B.P.’ (Young, Black, and Poor) with a gleeful turn from Bruiser Wolf, sounding like the greatest Sesame Street guest there never was. 

The album’s second single, ‘Jenn’s Terrific Vacation’, melds Danny’s high-toned yelps with circling, whispered questions. There’s a sense of paranoia and subconscious doubt as Kassa Overall’s production conjures the encroachment of gentrifying forces and the dispossession they bring. At the close, busy percussion falls away to reveal organ chords playing a funereal tune. On the second listen, you might realise they were there the whole time; the collapse of black neighbourhoods written into the plan from the very beginning.

The album’s back half contains its greatest triumphs and mis-steps. ‘Down Wit It’ hits with ethereal strings and neon-flecked synth, as Brown mourns the departure of his life-partner. It’s a potent dismissal of any progress narrative created by his last two LPs: 2019’s U Know What I’m Sayin?, with its hit ‘Best Life’, and this year’s raucous, peerless Scaring the Hoes. A late break in Brown’s breath control, usually so flawless, makes the most affecting track on the album. ‘Celibate’ reads like a dismantling of the joyous (and concocted) sexcapades of 2019’s ‘Dirty Laundry’, instead pivoting closer to the numbness that rounds out XXX’s ‘I Will’ from a decade ago. That is until MIKE slurs his way onto the track, muddying the image as his flow slumps against the beat.

The album ends with a three-track run of Brown’s most subdued music to date. ‘Shakedown’ brings Bladee-esque vocalisations from ZeelooperZ and a woozy sunrise flow as a counterweight to its assured lyrics, while ‘Hanami’ paints the bloom and fall of cherry blossom with its meditations on this transient life. Here is a memento mori reminiscent of Atrocity’s ‘Today’, but with fresh scope: Brown no longer fearing for his life on the streets, but wrestling with wasting it on art that fails either the market, or himself.

The closer, ‘Bass Jam’, is a salve to all these anxieties. All curled photopaper and reels of tape, Brown reminisces on the classics his mother would play him before bed and the discoveries that carried him through early mornings and the school run. There’s nostalgia here so universal there’ll be few it fails to touch, so potent is the idea that in youth, music speaks for us. Signing off on forty years, Brown leaves us with a lullaby in blissed out production that cuts to his very reason for being, for persisting: the comfort of music. 

It’s been his solace, and even if the demands of fame continue to grate, he remains blessed, and we’re blessed he remains with us.

Featured Image Credit: Skretts