Danny Brown, Pusha T, and Old Guy Rap
The release of Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail was the day rap became mortal. Mr. Carter, one of the greatest rappers of all time, not only put out a mediocre piece of work—it was boring. Over eccentric beats, Jay showed himself to be in a creative rut, unable to make the comforts of fame and fortune sound remotely interesting. And that’s to be expected. Rap was never thought of as a young man’s game. Frankly, old guys sound weird talking about parties, girls, and gangs. However, with two recent releases by thirtysomethings Danny Brown and Pusha T, there may yet be hope for old guy rap.
In case you forgot about Danny Brown’s age, his album, released Oct. 8, is called Old. This refers not only to his seniority in the rap game, but also how people often ask him to emulate the style of his younger days, how they want the “old” Danny Brown. And this is how Brown is able to make his work exciting in ways Jay-Z’s MCHG didn’t: with self-awareness. Rather than alienate his older fans of his more Detroit-sounding material, or the new fans who love his druggy festival rap, he more than satisfies them both, while also mixing them together.
Brown’s album has a Side A and Side B, with distinct sounds. The first side is more thoughtful and gritty, with understated beats and Brown toning down his high-pitched bark to a thoughtful murmur. The second side has the abrasive sound that has made Brown famous in recent years, electronic bangers with Brown gleefully yapping over the top. Although the first half is more about his past and the second about his present, the subject matter leaks into one another. Most noticeably, there are drugs everywhere– dealing, consuming, glorifying, regretting. While often seen as the poster boy for “Molly rap”, Brown is honest about his complex relationship with drugs, most prominently when he says he was once too high to see his own daughter. With the lack of subject change, Brown seems to be saying that while his sound has changed and he’s grown a great deal, he’s still the same guy.
Pusha T is definitely also the same guy. Once known as half of the coke-rap power duo Clipse, guess what? Pusha still raps about cocaine most of the time, and yet manages not to glorify drug dealing. His album’s title, My Name is My Name, is a reference to the HBO show The Wire, known for its intricate and honest portrayal of the many different factions involved with drugs in Baltimore. MNIM shows this brutal honesty, especially with the album’s highlight track “Nosetalgia.”
Over a simmering and stuttering beat, Pusha recounts his drug-dealing past and is then followed by Kendrick Lamar’s memories of growing up in family of dealers and users. Both verses are remarkably well-crafted, with Kendrick keeping up with Pusha’s snarling delivery. Every verse Pusha puts out has this snarl behind it; his drug dealing days are long gone but the persona will never leave him completely. The album only falters when Pusha is not completely the centerpiece; he is at his best over sinister beats like “Nosetalgia” and “King Push.” Other songs with more traditional hooks and busier production dilute the impact of Pusha’s rapping. The album has too many guests (there are features on 10 of 12 songs), but for the most part Pusha’s label boss Kanye West is able to coax a great album out of the veteran rapper.
Jay-Z’s album was an attempt at aging gracefully, with all its high-art references and opulence. Pusha T and Danny Brown don’t care about aging gracefully. With honesty and creativity they show the scars of age, their pasts and futures and how in many ways their character has remained unchanged through it all. Old guys may not be as active as the younger generation, but they usually have great stories to tell. And this is why rap’s retirement age is going to keep rising.