Artists of the Year 2011

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Jeff Gage is City Pages' editorial administrator and a regular contributor of music criticism and profiles.

Danny Brown

By Ray Cummings

Some 13 songs deep into XXX (Fool's Gold), his breakthrough mix tape, Danny Brown has an important question he needs you to answer. Thus far, the Detroit MC has been up to his eyeballs in epic-fail desperation and decadent depravity, all half-believed bravado and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas bacchanal. In these initial 33 minutes, Brown—a skinny-jeans wearing ex-con who raps in a strangulated, twitchy yelp that suggests the onset of hysterics or a guttural growl—has usurped Lil Wayne as his chosen genre's cunnilingus enthusiast, extolled protein shakes, identified himself as both "the Adderall admiral" and "Wes Craven with X cravings," and artfully Pac-Man'd through a laundry list of famous drug casualties.

Then, the brass-infused, methadone warmth of "DNA" washing around his ankles, ("bitches snortin' coke off each other's titties/with rolled fifties"), Brown breaks the fourth wall, and asks: "It's that XXX shit, nigga, how you feel?" It's something to think about. How do you feel about the past 33 minutes, the diaristic diarrhea, the excess, Brown himself? Brown could be alluding to the fact that at 30, he's way too old for this shit, but he's cleverer than that, and there's more happening here. At that moment, when it becomes apparent that the preceding nihilistic train wreck was a feint to command your attention, and that Brown knows that you know that he has you eating out of his scabbed palms, that's when XXX pivots, plunging into the real-talk nightmares the rapper grew up living: territorial gang beatings and broad-daylight murders no one sees ("ESNESW"), promising young lives swept away in narcotic undertows ("Nosebleeds," "Party All the Time"), the sort of post-'70s urban blight familiar to anybody who's spent time in economically emaciated cities ("Fields"). "Scrap or Die" manages the neat trick of framing scavenging abandoned buildings for precious metals as both low-rent caper banger and 8-bit first-person video game—viscous synthesizer bleeps and blips recalling lost Super Mario Brothers weekends even as they underline the inescapable voyeuristic charge street rap carries for most of its rarely chastened listeners, who might do well to take a look in the mirror.

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Ray Cummings writes regularly for City Pages' music section. He lives in Round Rock, Texas, and is the author of two books of poetry, Assembling the Lord and Crucial Sprawl, available from Twentythreebooks.

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