Album Review: Danny Brown – Quaranta

[Warp; 2023]

It’s very hard for me to reflect on mortality. On one hand, that’s due to my own experience with its sudden and unforgiving nature. But there’s also a spiritual quality that seems very current: mostly freed from religious thinking, the modern world has equipped a rational attempt of psycho-analysis to cope with the trauma and fear of death. And that, in turn, has led to an abstract, nihilistic flirtation with self-destruction. If there’s nothing to worry about in the nonexistent void thereafter, it mirrors the blind religious fervour that everything will be fine in the elysian afterlife. I guess that’s a nice way of evading accountability for self-annihilation, especially if paired with massive ego – but it won’t help the quandary that this here is all we will ever have. And if you actually realise what mortality means, through your own eyes or maybe even your own body, it leaves you frightened, alone, in a state of disbelief and paralysis. This vanishing, which seemingly renders any soulfulness meaningless and reveals empty spaces, is beyond our self. And still, we see each other huffing glue and sniffing powder, to somehow combat the very struggles beating hearts do bring.

So I can’t talk about my own experiences, in recent times and past years, with death. But it enables me to open up to the core of Danny Brown‘s new album, Quaranta. It documents Brown’s evolution as an artist like no other album has before, as it chronicles his weariness with being himself without relying on manufacturing an avatar. The narrative surrounding uknowhatimsayin¿ was heavily influenced by the impression that Danny, following the sinister cyberpunk masterpiece Atrocity Exhibition, had overcome his demons, fixed the gash in his teeth, sobered up.

But the reality was a different one. As Brown now recounts openly, his drug habit had become all the worse, and he was anticipating his own death from fentanyl throughout his binging of 2020. It took a lot from him; he describes moments similar to those seen in the music video to his own “Ain’t It Funny?” Even now, age 42 and relocated to Texas, sober, in a stable relationship and caring for his dogs, Brown found himself bereft of cash, the spoils of his work burnt up by addiction – he couldn’t pay for his own aunt’s funeral.

It’s in those feelings of powerlessness towards the shadow-self that Danny found the tone for Quaranta. He sounds tired, at times even exhausted, as he revisits the loss of his own identity to the powers that enforced his manic, colourful charisma. Little is left of the post-punk and tribal-ambient textures that made up many of his previous samples. In their place are smooth, ruminative soul, jazz and RnB backdrops, which open up a nocturnal, intimate space.

There’s almost no euphoria left, save for a few, such as the Alchemist produced “Tantor” and its absurdist music video. Brown as a ramshackle, drug-consuming inversion of Detroit’s very own Robocop is a hilarious image, and The Alchemist delivers his usually moody, somewhat warped style as adequate camouflage. “Y.B.P.” uses a funky sample and allows Bruiser Wolf to lend his fresh attitude to contrast Danny’s weary performance, as both relate their experience of growing up in the harsh Detroit scene, “Stuck in the middle between Blade and Dilla / Surrounded by killers, couldn’t see the big picture / From a bird’s eye view, we ain’t had no clue / Didn’t know what was true, had nothing to lose”. “Ain’t My Concern” continues Brown’s familiar Atrocity Exhibition tone: set to a sinister Quelle Chris and Chris Keys beat that could fit on a 90s RZA production, the rapper recalls his struggle with fame and drugs. In both cases, he finds grim imagery, that leaves no room for glamour: “Back in the day, they sold their soul for rock’n’roll / But with this rap shit, a n***a sell his booty-hole / […] Never know when it’s over cause this life won’t last / New n***a in your spot, now he punchin’ the clock.”

But that’s about it for those who desire a return of the rapper’s previous styles. The rest of the album is melancholic and introspective. There’s the nervous, jazzy “Jenn’s Terrific Vacation”, which tackles gentrification in images that mirror Cold War paranoia: “Who’s that peeping in my window? / I don’t really know what they here for / On the corner just built a Starbucks / I was just looking for a come up / Right there used to be a crack house / Now it’s an organic garden”. Kassa Overall’s eerie whispers of “What you gon’ do?” and “Where you gon’ go?” lead through the song as ominous threats, reminding of the erasure of Black identity that environmental upheaval brings with it. Opening track “Quaranta” has Danny recall his own downfall over the years, opening on the devastating lines “This rap shit done saved my life / And fucked it up at the same time / That pain in my heart, I can’t hide / A lot of trauma inside / You can see it in my eyes / Could’ve ended it in seconds”. “Down Wit It” is even more depressing, with Danny sounding legitimately exhausted as he recounts the loss of his partner, beating himself up over it: “Never would’ve thought I’d fuck up who I’m closest with / All my fault, for most of it / Thought I knew everything, but don’t know shit / That’s why I’m so sick”. 

The track kicks off the dark b-side of Quaranta, which has Danny sink into the labyrinth of his own biography, reconstructing the elements that led him down low. “Celibate” sports the liminal energy of a Boards of Canada song, all lascivious female moaning and toy-box synth mantras. It frames his past of selling drugs and doing time in muted colours. The soulful vibe of “Shakedown” seems entrenched in the Afro-optimism of late-90s RnB and complements Danny accepting his own happiness – and losing it as a consequence of his flaws: “Say she want me for my money, even that ain’t enough / Say she done living lies, well, who can I trust? / Every morning, waking up like “This can’t be” / Now I understand the best things in life are free”. Kendrick found similar reprieve in self-analysis on Mr. Morale…, but he often showed defiance in light of his struggle – Brown only finds disgust and sadness: “Everything my fault, thought that love could be bought / It was all sugar ’til it turned to salt / Felt like I was trapped until I got caught / Thought I had everything until I took that loss”.

Closer “Bass Jam” further highlights this introspection, returning to Danny’s childhood over a spacious instrumental of muted bass and shoegaze guitars – it’s got the eerie sense of watching your life pass before your eyes: “Playin’ that Anita Baker early when I wake up / Smellin’ scrambled eggs with the bacon / Knew this for the takin’, ‘fore I went to school / Mama played them classic tunes right on the station / Hidin’ from the beat, the song never end / It don’t ever matter ’til we play it again’”. The repeated chorus of “Hold up, that my shit / Play it one mo ‘gain” can work as a metaphor to confront Danny’s own fleeting existence, beckoning for more time to experience the same sense of joy he felt as a kid.

There’s been many records where artists ruminate on their own downfall, chronicling the toxic spiral that sees drugs and wealth and lack of self-confidence intertwined with paranoia and trauma. But few have been as conclusive in their aura as Quaranta. With his short, fiery hair, lost in the blackness of his surroundings, Danny stares into his listener’s heart, measuring himself in their gaze.

It seems like a goodbye, a definitive end-note to something. But even with all this, Brown doesn’t seem finished on his path. “Hanami” makes this clear, as the chorus repeats the memento mori motif: “Time wait for no man, so you can’t waste time / Can’t get time back, time after time”. Even with all the things he has lost, he’s still present and in the moment. This is where the album differs from a work like Bowie’s Blackstar – which consciously waved goodbye – but aligns it with the spiritual quest found in Picasso’s blue period. It embraces the experience of mortality, but plants the seeds for a new future in its periphery. It’s an attempt to accept the past to live with it, as opposed to explain it to cast off earthly baggage.

In this regard, Quaranta is an incredibly brave work of art. It eludes navel gazing and the self-flagellation that comes with substance abuse. It is varied enough to provide entertainment, but never submits to commodification. By nakedly opening its emotional core, conjuring images of weary defiance to death and its minions, the record finds immense strength. It’s not even necessarily uncomfortable in that, though it must have been hard for Danny to face his demons and weigh them against images of his lost innocence, as represented by “Bass Jam”. Finding the same purpose in Brown’s catalogue that Bowie’s Low held in his respective discography, Quaranta is a chronicle of what it means to be among the living, for a brief moment, serenading the past selves. Some day, this struggle will be over – but that is not today.