Danny Brown’s Old ended up on so many end-of-year lists in part because the rapper ably straddled conscious rap with club bangers. Throughout his third studio album, the Detroit MC positioned himself as someone conflicted with his admittedly unsettling choices, but yet still drawn — like a fly to a flickering, buzzing bug zapper — to a life of drug addiction and crime.
Critics praised Brown for that mix of self-aware rhymes and gritty street tales, and while it made for compelling listening on a pair of headphones, in a live setting the songs seemed stripped of whatever conscience they were originally imbued with. In other words, it got icky — hearing a roomful of people chant en masse about cunnilingus (“Handstand”) will do that, I suppose — but then again, that’s the appeal, right?
The crowd at Sunday’s sold-out A&R Bar show seemed to agree, and I credit Brown for filling his nearly hour-long set with Old’s Side B, the banger-heavy portion of the album, and cuts from his second LP, XXX.
Had Side A won out, the night might have felt like one long hazy comedown. As it was, the song choices made for a more enjoyable rap show — especially if you were as drunk and/or blunted as Danny appeared (and admitted) at times — by stepping on the pedal from the start and never relenting, from early-cut “Smokin’ and Drinkin’,” 'til the evening crashed head-first into a cement wall with “Dip.”
Despite the thick, muggy atmosphere at A&R (I’ve rarely encountered so much stranger-sweat from passers-by) leading to dozens lingering on the patio and giving the inside a weirdly empty feeling for a sold-out show, the crowd was hyped from the word “go.” Literally.
Brown’s hype-man repeated the word as “Break It [Go]” played over the speakers and Brown emerged from somewhere with probably just as much weed smoke as the concert floor. The room shook. Arms and bodies bounced. But Brown, as was the case through much of the night, struggled to pierce through his hype-man’s rough, loud bark and the crowd’s rapping along to every word. Brown’s distinctive yelp is piercing on record; live, it often struggled to rise above the noise, often sounding like one long slurred verse, as if his bars were stuck on fast-forward.
That wasn’t a problem on XXX cut “I Will”’ where Brown rapped parts of the song a capella with the crowd’s claps providing the beat. Nor was it for other crowd-favorites like “Blunt After Blunt,” “Handstand,” or “Bruiser Brigade,” where the sheer joy and energy from the floor catapulted the venue into another dimension, as if, as Brown suggested on “Kush Coma,” we were stuck in an elevator free-falling at 90 miles an hour.
Toward the end, Brown seemed to feel the effects himself, professing his readiness to enter the aforementioned “Kush Coma.” “Roll that shit up, light that shit up, pass that shit to me, and let’s smoke,” he told the crowd, and eventually a joint made its way to him onstage. He took a few hits, and sometime later event security guards joined Brown onstage, jerking the proceedings to a standstill. They weren’t concerned with his activities, though, and after Brown paused, giving the guards a few minutes to sort out whatever it was they were looking for in the crowd, he jumped into another cut and the concert lurked forward again.
But the evening ended with a similar abruptness not much later. Brown started in on single “25 Bucks” to loud applause, and the crowd followed his every word, building toward what felt like was going to be the penultimate song. But then the track ended, and the music kept playing. The crowd lingered, unsure of what to do. Brown, of course, was long gone, like that friend who abruptly and without warning leaves the bar when he suddenly realizes how messed up he is, his head filled with a firework show on the Fourth of July in Las Vegas and needing, right this minute, a moment of peace. In other words, they wanted that old Danny Brown, and, for this night, they got him.