Blunt After Blunt: XXX Turns 10

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Danny Brown – XXX

Released August 15th, 2011 on Fool’s Gold Records

Produced by Brandun DeShay, DJ House Shoes, Frank Dukes, Nick Speed, Paul White, Quelle, Skywlkr, Squadda, and Bambino.

Detroit is an interesting city. I’m about the same age as Danny Brown – he’s just under a year older than me – and where I grew up it was equidistant between Toronto and Detroit. Toronto was a growing, glittering metropolis that was, underneath the glamour, an overgrown farm trade hub full of working class immigrants. Detroit was a cautionary tale, a wild place that had grown grim and strange in the wake of the cultural turmoil of the Sixties and the nasty deindustrialization that began in the Eighties. Toronto was a hog processing center that had the good luck to develop into one of the three major cultural centres of an entire country. Detroit was the Motor City, and when the car industry packed up its plants and moved on to cheaper pastures, they had little to fall back on. When we spoke of Detroit it was about the decay, and about the fires that were set on Devil’s Night, the night before Halloween. Derelict houses were burned down by those who still lived in old inner Detroit so that crackheads and rapists wouldn’t have a place to hide out. The result, by the early 21st Century, was stunning – entire blocks that were nothing but green fields with the occasional occupied house sticking out of them like the last teeth in an old man’s mouth. In the late Nineties there were reports in the Toronto Star that wolves had taken over parts of the abandoned downtown. It was a place haunted by poverty and desperation. When we went to Detroit for concerts we were warned by our parents to stay out of most parts of the city, including anywhere beyond the infamous 8 Mile ring that Eminem made famous. In retrospect media like that of Eminem, Child’s Play, and Robocop probably didn’t help matters much.

Danny Brown grew up there, and he’s got stories. His parents tried to keep him away from crime but when he was 18 they broke up and to make ends meet he started selling weed. After a decade or so of this life, including several cases and an 8-month stint in jail for dodging charges he decided to give rap a try, since it had been something he had been interested in since learning how to speak in rhymes at the age of 5. XXX was his third mixtape, released in 2011 and named after the fact that he turned 30 in that year. He’d just signed to Fool’s Gold, a goal of his, on the advice of Q-Tip, and they released the album as a free download. The critics ate it up; a number of outlets placed it on their year-end lists and people were talking him up in terms of being a Major Contender. There are a lot of reasons in XXX as to why this was. First was his hectoring flow, delivered in a voice that is directly comparable to Cypress Hill’s B Real but somehow more energetic. Next were his oddball, off-the-wall lyrics. The Hybrid, which came before, was about the drug life, the despair of the streets, and the cycle of teen pregnancy. XXX was much more experimental, working with different rhyme patterns and pushing the envelope in terms of what he could get away with. This ranged from drugs both in the fatalistic sense (“Die Like A Rockstar”, “Nosebleeds”, “Party All The Time”) and the celebratory sense (“Blunt After Blunt”); the cheapness of life in the streets of Detroit (“Detroit187”, which samples the Doogie Howser M.D. theme song); and the joys of eating pussy (the laugh-out-loud vulgar “I Will”). Of course, lots of rappers talk about drugs, violence, and sex. Danny Brown made his name with off-kilter rhyme schemes and hilarious wordplay, the kind where you’re laughing and envious at the same time.

Danny Brown is also far more willing to experiment with sounds when compared to a lot of Top 40 rappers. During the writing of XXX he listened to a lot of Joy Division and the production choices are very much alt-hip hop. The Joy Division reference was solidified after he signed to Warp Records and named his 2016 album Atrocity Exhibition. Clearly, he’s a dude whose listening habits extend outside of what everyone else in the game is doing, and I think that’s in the end what separates guys like Danny Brown or Freddie Gibbs or Kendrick Lamar from guys like Lil’ Yachty and DaBaby – the former draw from all sorts of influence and the latter from what’s playing on the radio.

XXX was a breakthrough for Brown and put him on the radar of people outside the circle of heads. His follow-up, Old, would see him collaborating with Calgary’s alterna-pop duo Purity Ring and hitting #18 in the U.S. The decade since XXX – he turns 40 this year – was one of the more critically successful of the 2010s, even if the sales were here and there.

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