“Not a martian nor human /, I’m hybrid / Open ya eyelids / You might miss something like a / Phenomenon” –– “The Hybrid”
Today marks the 10th anniversary of the release of Danny Brown’s debut album The Hybrid, the first project on which he unleashed his shape-shifting, phlegm-soaked, feral honk of a voice and unlocked his potential as a rapper, songwriter, and humorist. The Hybrid marks the beginning of one of the best five-album runs in rap history and Brown’s wild ride as the great rap unicorn of the ‘10s.
For the last decade, Brown has used cutting self-deprecation to strip the luster rappers typically apply to songs about youthful insouciance, promiscuous sex, selling drugs, consuming drugs, and sonning other rappers. He has used his extraordinary voice in service of his incisive writing, which is defined by his ability to create tension and ambiguity without mincing words. He has been pithier than any punchline specialist. He is no comedy rapper, but he might be a comedic genius.
Brown is a brilliant writer of hooks — not refrains, but individual lines that draw in the listener. He’s so sharp that he frequently cuts to the heart of each song in the very first line; he begins his 2010 song “Re-Up” by rapping, rather confrontationally, “I used to get domed up by crackheads.” His 2011 song “Monopoly” ends with a hook, a sudden, pungent, and unforgettable cliffhanger: “… And still fucking with them freak hoes / Stank pussy smelling like Cool Ranch Doritos.” Many improbable things are at play here: the superhuman associative powers Brown channels through his nostrils; the trembling, upward inflection of the word “Doritos;,” the way it lingers awkwardly like Wile E. Coyote the moment he speeds off a cliff. The craziest part, though, is just how quotidian this line feels in the context of Brown’s overall body of work. He spews out these gems by the truckload.
One can view Brown as the esteemed bard-jester of Detroit — the self-proclaimed “pervert wearing sherbert” who places pain and pleasure side-by-side so that everyone’s cringing except him. He packs his songs with unorthodox flexes, in which the good mingles tantalizingly with the bad. Each of his five albums, from The Hybrid to 2019’s uknowhatimsayin¿, is kind of like a game of show-and-tell, and his relationships with sex, drugs, growing old, and the city of Detroit are like hairy warts. Danny Brown wants to show you his warts.
Consider Brown’s profound horniness. When asked by Red Bull Music Academy which album he would choose to save if his house was on fire, Brown replied: “I think I’d probably save a porno DVD before I save a record.” His albums double as catalogues of his weirdest sexual adventures; he revels in smut, unflinching and unabashedly sex-positive. “I Will” is a breathless and comprehensive ode to the joys of cunnilingus. “Radio Song” contains an unlikely women’s empowerment message (“Do the pretty girl rock / even though ya ugly”) that only works because Brown’s music generally portrays him as an indiscriminate, equal-opportunity sex partner. Those songs are now eight years old, and Brown’s impulse to put his erotic hijinks on wax is currently as strong as ever. His most recent album uknowhatimsayin¿ is studded with imaginative, Lil B-indebted anti-flexes, like “Hoes on my dick ‘cause I look like Roy Orbison.” It also features the song “Dirty Laundry,” a cautionary sexual highlight reel that begins in a Burger King bathroom and is destined to wind up in some abstinence-only sex-ed curriculum. “He’s always the butt of his own joke,” says Stephen Christian, Brown’s A&R at Warp Records, “and that just shows such a huge degree of insight and self-awareness.” It’s true: sex never sounds quite as uncool as it does on a Danny Brown record.
Brown’s instinct as a songwriter is to create chains of humblebrags, variations on a theme. Not garden-variety humblebrags, but instead the kind where it’s never clear if he’s bragging or humbling himself, even as he grapples with his own substance abuse. “Experiment so much / it’s a miracle I’m living,” he humblebrags on “Die Like a Rockstar,” a song that carves out his bust in the pantheon of famous overdoses. On “Smokin & Drinkin,” he works with A-Trak to fashion a strong cocktail of EDM and hip-hop that operates on multiple levels; it’s a monster party track that leans into its visceral highs to disguise Brown’s double-edged portrayal of self-medication and club culture. He quotes the recursive chorus of “Blunt After Blunt,” which becomes both funnier and more depressing with every “blunt.” By the seventh mention, you feel winded just listening to him.
Similarly, Atrocity Exhibition – Brown’s 2016 concept album that explores his addictive tendencies and the bleakest corners of his psyche – remains defiantly buoyant and often darkly humorous. “It’s kind of like tickling you with one hand and then showing you something really gnarly with the other one,” Christian says of the album. “Get Hi” places Brown’s affectionate descriptions of the drugs he takes amidst comically blissful production that sounds like the backing track to one of Dr. Andrew Weil’s guided meditation tapes. Brown is never more a man of earthly pleasures than he is on “White Lines,” in which a cocaine spree and peaking libido fuel one another. It’s unclear whether this pattern of events constitutes a vicious cycle or a virtuous one. And that’s kind of the point.
Brown’s fertile sense of humor doesn’t merely pertain to sex and drugs — it also pertains to his age, which is an important component of his personal identity. His 2011 breakout XXX, released when he was 30 (as denoted by the title’s Roman numerals), offers the lamentations of a late bloomer worried that his career window may have already passed. The truth is that Brown has always been eager to date himself and feed the notion that he is, in fact, an old-ass rapper. In his semi-iconic conversation with A$AP Rocky from 2012, in which he expressed his admiration for Love frontman Arthur Lee as well as his attraction to Zsa Zsa Gabor and Kathy Griffin, he told Rocky of his ambition to be “the first 70-year-old nigga rapping. And still be hard and fucking up young niggas.”
The future is now, as this sensibility already informs Brown’s music; casually incorporating outdated music and pop culture references from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s into tales of Bacchanalian excess is one of his calling cards. Even his more contemporary references rarely extend past the early aughts. His line “I can sell honey to a bee” is akin to JAY-Z’s timeless hustler adage “I sell water to a well,” except animated by Adderall sweats rather than cold-blooded capitalism. “We eat so many shrimp I got iodine poisoning” is a direct quote from Pimp C, but when Brown says it, it naturally carries the air of sexual innuendo, regardless of his intent. In Brown’s hands, classic rap flexes become more personal, which is to say, more absurd.
The thing that ages Brown the most, though, is his ability to bring to life an unbelievable wealth of source material scoured from his 30s, 20s, teens, and even elementary school years. He conjures images from his distant past with ease, none more lucid than those where he declines to inject his grim memories with traces of humor. On “Torture,” he raps: “Was like fucking seven years old / When I first seen a fiend try to light a rock off the stove / Damn near burned his top lip off / So my mind ticked off / Desensitized to a lot of things / Mmind would drift off / Wish it was what I seen on TV / I snapped outta that / unc’ beating on my auntie.” On “Fields,” he renders the desolation of one Detroit neighborhood with incredible clarity and economy: “And where I lived / It was house, field, field / Field, field house.” Across his five albums, Brown appears as a survivor who came up in the decaying crucible of Rust Belt America — a desperado who has seen it all.
At every level — word, line, song, album — Danny Brown excels in creating deft interplays of light and darkness, in which humor and hedonism undercut heavy personal stakes, and vice versa. Ten years ago, at the outset of The Hybrid, he proclaimed that he was “’bout to live the title of the greatest rapper ever.” Today, those words read as prophecy.