Widely championed as a witches’ brew of old school rap precision and new school wackiness, XXX excels by upending two important categories of hip-hop content—sex and poverty—basically discrediting the Hollywood versions of both. Brown’s descriptions of (mostly oral) sex frequently allude to gas station fare: things bubble up, smell like Cool Ranch Doritos. His fantasy food play involves carrots, not whipped cream. He says feminists give him hard-ons. It’s more than a little grade school, but compared to most popular music’s promotion of unattainable fantasy, Brown’s open-armed, honest embrace of an inherently sloppy enterprise is pretty healthy. He talks about being poor in a similarly unvarnished way, most directly on the album’s penultimate track, “Scrap or Die,” taking all the cocky joyriding out of Young Jeezy’s drug dealers’ anthem “Trap or Die.” Where Jeezy’s protagonist cruises off in a BMW, Brown portrays a nobody with a crackhead uncle and a rusty flatbed pickup, ripping off old computers and copper pipe from a closed-down school until he’s arrested for trespassing. For years, voyeuristic news reports and artsy photographers trafficking in the “ruin porn” of collapsing architecture have catalogued Detroit’s great demise, but rarely with Brown’s complicated mix of shame and pride, and never with the humor and surprising grace of a man who can’t tell a tragedy without painting the antihero’s flatbed truck the same color as doo-doo. On “Lie4,” he flips a cliché first verse about partying in limos and dining with models in converted mansions, revealing that the night is actually being funded by the income tax refund of a delusional man unable to provide for his children. “I wasn’t the nigga that was thinking what was going on around me was cool. I knew it wasn’t. I seen people do too much dumb shit,” Brown says of his source material. “The first time I ever went to a strip club we rolled straight past the line. I’m not even old enough to get in. I’m a baby-faced nothing. I seen a bitch put a flashlight in her pussy and cut it on and off when I was 17 years old. Why was I seeing that? You know how every rapper be like, Yo, I want to rep for my hood, I’m doing shit for my block? Like, on some G shit, I might be the first nigga to straight up be like, Nah, I’m not doing it for none of them motherfuckers. I’m doing it to get away from them. Fuck all that. Fuck the hood. Fuck Detroit, bruh. Detroit ain’t who I am.”
Born in 1981, Brown belongs to the first generation of artists whose dads listened to hip-hop. “My pops put me up on Wu-Tang and stuff like that,” Brown says. “He bought me the CD when I didn’t even know what Wu-Tang was.” In a deep, in-his-blood kind of way, he understands the stuff, reveres pioneering artists and loves what the genre stands for. He artfully frames that precedent, and wickedly pulls the rug out from underneath it. The title XXX evokes adult entertainment and cartoonishly labeled bottles of moonshine, but it also stands for Brown’s age, 30. It’s the first word he says on the album and the subject of XXX’s last song. What makes Brown’s recent success so interesting and unlikely—particularly in a genre whose youngest stars always seem to shine brightest—is precisely that it took him so long to get here. Though he has emerged at 30, and not 20, like some of his odder peers, it’s not for lack of trying. “In first grade,” he says, “they asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, and I said, I want to be a rapper. My whole class laughed.” In junior high, when four or five different drug dealers would stop Brown on the way home to pay him to freestyle, the infamous drug-trafficker Demetrius “Big Meech” Flenory, who is now serving 30 years in the US Penitentiary in Atlanta, supposedly told him to stick with music, that he was good at it. Brown says the advice didn’t take hold: “What did I have to rap about?” Besides working for near-minimum wage at a buffet when he was 14, at Burger King in high school (at which point he was already selling anyway and basically flipping burgers for free food), and for a single-day stint packing VHS boxes for Disney’s Mulan from which he was fired for fainting after a seven-blunt, foodless lunch break, Brown’s job history has been solely illegal. “I feel like I was selling drugs just to rap about it in some sense,” he says. “I had other options, man. I was never like those niggas that I was around doing that shit with. But I thought that was giving me some extra something to rap about. I didn’t know that was going to turn into my whole twenties.”
In 2003, Brown’s friend Mister “B-Mo” Cotton took him to New York for the first time, buying the two of them overnight Greyhound tickets in a futile attempt to enter Brown in an MTV-hosted battle rap competition. The trip was eye opening. With newfound access to the city, Brown linked with Travis Cummings, an A&R for Roc-A-Fella, who introduced him to a studio in Queens that allowed him free access when no one else was using it. For years, traveling alone, Brown would repeat that Greyhound journey, scrambling to save money for a one-way ticket to leave Thursday night, crash with sympathetic acquaintances and record over whatever leftover beats Cummings could find. He’d wear out his welcome, exhaust his savings on cigarettes and McDonald’s, and pay-phone home Monday morning to beg for money for the ride back. By then, Brown was in his mid-twenties, jobless, on probation (manufacturing and distributing marijuana), living with his grandmother and unhappily split with his five-year-old daughter’s mother. His entire deal in Detroit—musical or otherwise—was veering perilously close to colossal failure. “It was a long period of my life where I was just a nobody,” he says. “And for a while, that’s what my family thought I would be, just a guy sleeping on a couch, writing his name on an orange juice like, Don’t touch that shit.” But recording in New York, where actual success as a rapper was accepted as something that could happen to a person, Brown felt like he was taking charge: “I knew I was doing something that nobody else around me was doing.” After he was incarcerated for eight months in 2007 for a probation violation, Brown took advantage of his newly-warrantless clean slate by returning to selling weed. But this time he had a plan, plus a newly penned notebook of lyrics eight-months thick: he’d rack up finances as quickly as possible and devote all the money to a music career. After a few months back at it, he collected his drug money and recorded his first album, Hot Soup.