Danny Brown is a vandal. A verbal miscreant. A sexual glutton. A puckish, wild-eyed, enfant terrible of hip-hop who isn’t quite accessible enough to be a chart-topper, but is skilled enough to regularly feature on their songs.
Brown, who headlined a nearly sold-out First Avenue show Sunday, is days away from releasing his third proper studio album, Atrocity Exhibition. The LP borrows its name from a Joy Division song. For just about any other rapper, the nod would reek of pretension, but Brown’s always been adamant about his numerous, disparate influences. Earlier this year, in a Beats 1 interview, the Detroit-born rapper told Zane Lowe that much of Atrocity Exhibition was inspired by the Talking Heads and Radiohead’s latest, A Moon Shaped Pool.
Conventional wisdom says rap is a young man’s game, and experience reminds us live hip-hop can be dicey, often inconsistent. Based on his performance at First Ave, apparently Brown, 35, didn’t get either memo.
There are few, if any, MCs who can whip an otherwise meek crowd into a positively “turnt” orgiastic frenzy like Brown. Culling almost exclusively (and suspiciously) from his two previous releases --- 2011's XXX and 2013's Old -- Brown ambled onto the Mainroom stage to the industrial rattle of “Die Like a Rockstar,” which was immediately followed by standards like “I Will,” “Bruiser Brigade,” and the reliably grimy “Monopoly.” It was a blistering, albeit predictable, set that showed fans the new Danny Brown is a lot like the old Danny Brown -- and then some.
Brown is a complex rapper, to say the least. He’s performing a tight-wire act that sounds like a cross between Andre 3000 and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, depending on his mood. He's a nasally cerebral rapper’s rapper by day, degenerate maverick by night. And of course, there’s the misogyny, too. Even the most devoted fan would be hard-pressed to deny the aggressively sexist lyrics that permeate Brown’s catalog. Like in the staple “Blunt After Blunt,” wherein Brown famously rapped, “Hold up/ Wait a minute/ Your pussy ain’t shit/ Til ya have some Danny in it.”
Despite its abject crassness, the line, and many others in the same vein, were echoed by his legions of (predominately white hipster) fans Sunday night. This sounds deplorable, but it was was reminiscent of toady Hold Steady fans; imagine the above line shrieked with the same vigor as HS loyalists shouting, “double-whiskey, coke, no ice!” (Did you imagine? OK, good). Every great live act has a rallying cry. Unfortunately, most of Brown’s are entrenched in deeply problematic gender politics. “Stank pussy smell like Cool Ranch Doritos,” from “Monopoly,” is another crowd-favorite line where no one flubs the words.
Whether it’s unapologetic sexism or edgy artifice, Brown’s carnal energy is infectious and his shows are much more about movement and vibe than lyrical content. He is a maximalist showman who, on stage, operates more like a denizen of D.C. hardcore than an acclaimed indie rapper. Unlike many of his peers, he recites nearly every word, rarely pauses for applause, and pogo dances across the stage with a kind of exuberance that would make Tyler, the Creator look tame.
It wasn’t all rousing bangers, though. For every “Handstand” and “Smokin’ and Drinkin’,” Brown delivered renditions of “25 Bucks” and “Float On” that added some much-needed levity to the Molly-infused romp. The encore included the two singles from the forthcoming album as well as a truncated version of “Really Doe,” which features rap A-listers Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, and Ab-Soul.
There’s an urgency about Brown’s music that makes it feel more alive and massive than anything in hip-hop right now. From the posturing drollness of Future to the arena-sized spectacle of Kanye’s Life of Pablo tour, most rap shows will leave you feeling like a tourist. But with Brown, there's this authenticity, on record and on stage, that connects with the listener. It's what makes him such a vital voice in rap -- he has a vision and he wants you to witness it from every angle.
Too many rappers get lost in their persona, eventually compromising their sonic palette in the interest of stature. For Brown, the music and the persona are inextricably linked, as we saw again and again last night at First Ave. Atrocity Exhibition isn’t Danny Brown’s sound, circa 2016. Atrocity Exhibition is Danny Brown.
Oh, and no, he didn’t get his dick sucked this time.
Critic’s bias: Danny Brown is my favorite rapper.
Spotted in the crowd: Young adults of varying degrees of cool.
Overheard in the crowd: “Wow, this feels like the first time I smoked weed” (most likely referring to seeing Danny Brown and definitely not drug-related).
Random notebook dump: I am the saddest looking person at every rap show I attend.
Die Like a Rockstar
Monopoly, Outer Space
Blunt After Blunt
Smokin’ and Drinkin’
Break It, Handstand
Attak, Really Doe
When it Rain
Dance in the Water (new)