Danny Brown Balances the Wild and the Wise on 'Quaranta'

BY Nicholas SokicPublished Nov 15, 2023

"This rap shit done saved my life / And fucked it up at the same time," Danny Brown states at the top of Quaranta, his ferociously sincere sixth album. In the leadup to his second album of 2023, Brown called it his most personal record yet — right off the bat, he leaves little room for ambiguities on that front.

Music-as-lifeline is an idea that's been explored a million times in a million ways, but on Quaranta, Brown brings a depth of introspection — and a healthy dose of friction — to the well-worn idea, mining an autobiographical clarity not present to the same degree in previous projects. Quaranta — that's Italian for 40 — is Brown's long-awaited spiritual successor to his 2011's breakout game changer XXX, and one need only look at the album art to know this one is different; A wordless image of Brown, forlorn and half-engulfed in shadow.

Quaranta paints a portrait of a man who's been through it. Listening to this year's JPEGMAFIA-collab SCARING THE HOES, it might've been hard to parse the depth to which Brown has been struggling with his demons. Quaranta subverts that record's high-energy romp for eleven tracks that memorialize the endless grind of the music industry, hard times, a lost love and the power and paralysis that come with creating art.

Lyrically, Brown is still one of the best we have. Take the chorus of "Celibate," which melds homophones and history together with plainspoken delivery in a scant yet strong four bars: "I used to sell a bit / But I don't fuck around no more, I'm celibate / Had me trapped in that cell a bit / Locked up with some pimps, told me sell a bitch."

Brown has always had an amazing ear for producers, and Quaranta is no different. Here, he teams with the Alchemist, Quelle Chris, Skywlkr and longtime collaborator Paul White, ensuring that the increased lyrical insight doesn't translate to a subdued soundscape. The Alchemist-produced "Tantor" comes armed with bombastic drums and psych-blues guitar shredding, while on "Y.B.P.," Brown's ruminations on being young, Black and poor are bolstered by a smooth and silky horn and synth section from Skywlker and Kassa Overall. Then there's the looping keys and glimmering chimes of "Shakedown," seamlessly blending with Brown's mid-tempo flow.

Charismatic guests like Bruiser Wolf, Overall and MIKE manage to make their respective marks without taking up too much space — This is Brown's story. Nowhere is this more pronounced than on closer "Bass Jam," during which he recounts innocent childhood tales now lost to time  — "Cleaning up the house / Mary J. on cassette" — while its titular bassline and a wash of airy synths aid in creating another slow jam classic. Brown has learned to breathe a bit in the years since XXX, turning further inward and poking around in the greys as well as the neons. At the cusp of middle-age, Quaranta finds Brown just a little less wild and a whole lot wiser — he's better for it. 
(Warp Records)

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