Rapper Danny Brown still a work in progress

Danny Brown mixes humor and poignancy in his party-life raps.                               
Danny Brown mixes humor and poignancy in his party-life raps.                                (JOSH WEHLE)
Posted: August 30, 2014

At 33, Detroit's Danny Brown has become as notorious for sexual antics onstage and for self-admitted drug use as for his lewd, crude, yet smartly penned brand of electro-rap that manifested itself best on his most recent albums, XXX (2011) and Old (2013).

From rapping on a laissez-faire lifestyle in his best tracks to titling himself "the Adderall Admiral," Brown doesn't seem to be a settled down-and-serious guy. Yet he delayed an interview several days to settle on a house just outside Detroit. Isn't that a very un-Brown thing to do?

"I wouldn't say that necessarily," said Brown, who performs Sunday afternoon at the Made in America festival. "I'm serious and committed to many things." He knows the public perception of him ("Is there a better phrase than 'party boy'?") and his sex-and-drugs-and-rap reputation. So is the real Danny Brown a far more sober, somber person or is what we see what we get?

"A little of both, I suppose. I do spend a lot of time with my music. It's not dashed off, I can't always catch lightning in a bottle," he said, giggling. "I practice and preplan my craft. You can't party that much, so I change myself up and work hard on everything I do. I'm so serious and dedicated that I become like an animal in a cage. That's where the party come from. Besides, you can't write about these things unless you're experiencing these things."

He describes himself as a private person. Being from Detroit drove him toward brash hip-hop, wild hair, and licentious lyrics, he said. "If I was from Italy, maybe things would be different."

Being from Detroit also drove him to that city's famed electro and house-music scene, and predisposed him to the U.K. dance music genre called "grime."

"I was always into ghetto tech and samples, so when I heard grime, that was the closest thing to what I grew up with - the aggression of it - especially the hard raps over those hard beats," he explained.

Beyond the beats and the laughs, Brown managed to find poignancy on tracks such as "Dark Sunshine" and others that touched on the more difficult aspects of his life such as jail time. All of his tracks, though, seem lost in a haze of regret and sadness. There's a reason that Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest once called Brown "the Richard Pryor of hip-hop." There's pain in Brown's caustically funny game.

So, now that there is success to go with it, will the Detroit rapper's newer music benefit or is his psyche that of a troubled man?

"I think for the most part that I still don't have that success," Brown said. "I'm still hungering for approval. I want to be the greatest rapper ever. I challenge myself to do that, be that, with every project. I just want a lasting legacy when I'm gone. When Ali said what he said about me, he followed that up with 'Once you got them listening, say something.' "

So Brown is hard at work on his next album, where he'll mix lyrics of the irresponsible hijinks with stronger subject matter, the life he's lived since we last heard from him. "Before, I was just saying things to get your attention, but you all know I'm funny now. I don't have to prove anything."

Danny Brown plays at 3:45 p.m. Sunday in the Made in America festival. For information on the festival, see W14.

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