Depending on your criteria, Danny Brown may be the hottest rapper in the game right now.
You’d never know it by listening to the radio or watching TV, but recently Brown has been blowing up. The critical acclaim for his sophomore album, “XXX,” released for free on indie imprint Fool’s Gold just over a year ago, was only the beginning: appearances at Coachella, Bonnaroo, and other major festivals followed, along with a prolific output of scene-stealing guest verses, earning him the kind of critical acclaim and dedicated fan base that major labels regularly spend six-figure budgets trying to get for their artists. In fact, this is usually the time when the aforementioned labels step in with fat checks to buy their next ready-made star — see the cases of Drake, Wiz Khalifa, and Brown’s current tour costar A$AP Rocky for examples.
Only that hasn’t happened. The 30-year old Detroit native still lives in the suburbs of his hometown, still reps Fool’s Gold as his label, and still remains active in the local music scene despite his increased profile. His success has come in spite of radio and TV, and he could hardly be bothered with meeting either of them halfway, let alone submit to them. Danny Brown may well be hip-hop’s most captivating star of the moment, but he’s not going to change for anyone.
“Before I used to try to make songs that I thought my homeboys would like,” says Brown by phone Monday [from Detroit], a few days before launching his nationwide tour with A$AP Rocky and Schoolboy Q that arrives at the House of Blues tonight. “Then as I started growing up, I realized I’m not really like my homeboys — they’re my homies, but that’s because I grew up around them. If I had the opportunity, would I be hanging around these guys? Probably not, you know? So I just stopped caring about that and making music just for me. And that’s when it started working.”
DANNY BROWN, A$AP Rocky, Schoolboy Q
It’s not hard to imagine Brown sticking out from a crowd, even without his asymmetrical perm, tight-fitting jeans, and missing front tooth. His rhymes are unabashedly colored with the details of a rugged Detroit upbringing, including a stint selling crack, a yearlong jail sentence, and bouts of homelessness. Early forays into music were conventional by his current standards — a series of local mixtapes and a digital-only album with 50 Cent’s dubiously talented hype man Tony Yayo called “Hawaiian Snow.” But his appropriately titled 2010 solo debut, “The Hybrid,” showed Brown developing into an artist capable of pairing dynamic style with perversely hilarious and explicit substance.
“When we first approached Danny he didn’t have the crazy hair yet and wasn’t really rapping about drugs and all the stuff he’s known for now,” wrote Fool’s Gold cofounder DJ A-Trak in an e-mail. “He was just this amazingly talented rapper from Detroit who put out this free album that my partner Nick [Catchdubs] and I really loved. We were watching some interviews of him online and he kept talking about how how he didn’t care about making music for the radio, didn’t care about major labels, he just wanted to make music that he liked.”
The crazy hair and drugs in question have come to the forefront since “XXX” dropped last year, and have at times overshadowed a surprisingly complex and personal record about turning 30. Tracks like “Blunt After Blunt” and “Die Like a Rockstar” show Brown’s unapologetic taste for sex, drugs, and excessive partying pushing him to the edge, but on “EWNESW” he also shows himself capable of painting a vivid scene of Detroit urban decay. His shifting moods are expressed through different vocal styles — ranging from slow and contemplative to a hyperactive, wheezing Midwest twang — and beats from a talented group of unheralded young producers.
“I just think I just write rap music in general,” says Brown, a meticulous writer and editor of his own work. “After a while I’ll get bored doing just one type of thing. Whoever thought four years ago that I’d be making grime music? But I was listening to grime music then. At the end of the day, it was kind of intended for those different audiences.”
Finding an audience hasn’t been a problem lately. Thanks in part to strong endorsements from alternative-minded music publications like Pitchfork and Vice, Brown’s appeal among the indie electronic scene — manifested in collaborations with the likes of UK grime producer Darq E Freaker (on the gloriously filthy “Blueberry”) and Chicago duo Flosstradamus — is as strong as within the hip-hop community who know him from records with underground Detroit mainstays House Shoes and Black Milk.
Further opportunities for mass exposure are likely to follow; look no further than his tour mate A$AP Rocky, who earned a $3 million contract with Interscope Records and collaborations with pop stars like Usher and Rihanna off the strength of his self-released album “LiveLoveA$AP.” But Brown shows no urgency to cash in just yet; after all, he’s doing pretty well so far.
“I really don't care about collaborating or making music with anybody unless it’s going to be good,” he says. “I think it happens organically. I haven’t put out an album in a year and I’m probably hotter now than I was last year just off of features. At the end of the day I don’t know. . . . God be working with me, it’s his plan more than mine. I didn’t plan for it to come out that way.”