Of all the artists at last month's Treasure Island Music Festival, Danny Brown (born Daniel Sewell) was the only one I was really excited to talk to. This may seem bizarre, given that he's not such a big star as Little Dragon or Disclosure. (I wasn't even going to try for a Thom Yorke interview, and Beck—he insists that photographers sign a waiver that applies "throughout the universe.") But Brown, to my eyes, is the most exciting rapper out there right now.
While his 2011 mixtape, XXX, made him wildly popular in certain corners of the internet, it was Brown's latest record, Old, that ushered Daniel (as he introduces himself) into a new phase of prominence. Music critics like to frame him as two-sided: the sex-and-drug obsessed party mutant vs the dark, meditative poet who came up rough. With Old, Brown strives for three dimensions. And while many rappers are continuously trying to redefine themselves, he manages to exude a unique integrity of character in the face of recent media attention and major internet buzz. "I'm old enough now to where I can handle that," Brown says. "I'm 32. If I was 22, it might have been different." (Thirty-two, by the way, is pretty ancient in the rap world.)
One way he maintains his sense of self is by looking back at the horrors of his upbringing with a fierce, uncompromising eye. Over the brooding, rumbling beat for "Torture," Brown raps about Detroit's nightmarish landscape, as seen from a seven-year-old's perspective. He looks up as dope fiends attack one another with hammers, and burn themselves lighting crack pipes off the stove. "Desensitized to a lot of things," he growls, "Unc beating my auntie / gunshots outside was sorta like fireworks."
"In this condition, I don't think she need to see me / Ain't slept in four days, and I'm smellin' like seaweed."
He's unabashed about the poverty of his youth, and he doesn't shy from uncomfortable self-reflection. On "Clean Up," Brown recalls a particularly nasty binge when his daughter texted him, "Daddy, I miss you." His voice heavy and slow, he laments, "But in this condition, I don't think she need to see me / Ain't slept in four days, and I'm smellin' like seaweed."
Brown's artistic maturity might be hard to spot if you just popped in on his set at a music festival. Onstage, he comes off more outlandish and fun than anything else. That Old is back-loaded with rowdy crowd-pleasers like the squawking drug anthem, "Dip," may be a reflection of Brown's financial reality: Most of his music is available for free online; to earn a living, he tours to the point of exhaustion. "I'm having fun," he says. "I'm tired though."
"I'm on the internet all fucking day," Brown tells me. "It's my new brain."
Watching him rip up the Treasure Island stage, you'd never have known it. An hour before his set, I find Brown lounging in his tent with his producer, SKYWLKR, smoking a blunt and checking his MacBook. An untouched selection of mediocre-looking hospitality food adorns a folding table. The entire tent vibrates with the bass from an electro set happening not 30 yards away. He puts the computer down, and looks up. "I'm on the internet all fucking day," he says, laughing his trademark high-pitched stoner giggle, and revealing the trademark gap where his front tooth used to be. "It's my new brain. I'm old. I remember a time when that didn't exist, so I'm taking full advantage. The internet is my life. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the internet."
It's true, in a way. Danny is a prime example of how to win the internet rap game. Gone are the days of pushing a mixtape into a producer's hand. Now it's all about Youtube views and courting an esoteric faction of bloggers. "Twitter is the world," he says, and laughs again. "You can make shit happen on Twitter. If you get a bad hotel room, tweet "the Marriott sucks," and they might upgrade you."