Danny Brown is hip hop’s most unique rapper and most promising underdog.
Danny Brown smokes back-to-back Newports the moment he steps outside the lobby of New York’s Dream Hotel. He tucks his hair discreetly under a black baseball cap. Lanky with two front teeth missing from a bicycle accident, Brown wears pristine black Jeremy Scott-designed Adidas Originals with two extra tongues and a thousand-dollar black Moncler ski jacket he bought to taunt “baller white motherfuckers” he saw wearing the same coat in the airport. It’s a week before Christmas and the 30-year-old Michigan native, born Daniel Sewell, is in town for a celebratory performance at his label Fool’s Gold’s holiday party. In a year-end coup, his free album, XXX, was selected as Spin’s #1 rap release of 2011; Pitchfork ranked it two spots ahead of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne. He simultaneously adorned the covers of Detroit’s Metro Times and Real Detroit, winning “artist of the year” in both. But when an unassuming fashion industry intern recognizes him on the street, Brown seems uncomfortable—the first and only time he’ll display this emotion—and admits that being known to strangers makes him paranoid in some sort of ex-drug-dealing way. He circles the block in search of plain cheese pizza. “I have the appetite of a 12-year-old,” he says. And the sense of humor, too: Onstage that night, he interrupts his second verse on “Blunt After Blunt” to mimic cunnilingus, which goes on for an uncomfortable beat longer than expected, Brown lapping the air with his wide-stretched, triangular tongue and eyes bugged out so the white shows. “People think my life is just non-stop orgies with crackheads,” he says, folding an extra-large slice into his mouth. “And it kind of is.”
In Michigan, ten days later, Brown hunches half-lifeless over a small computer desk in the den of his one bedroom apartment in Royal Oak, the Detroit suburb where he’s lived for nearly two years and where he claims he spends “100 percent of [his] time,” though he’s just come off months of touring and is a few days away from performing as the sole rapper on an electronic-music-themed Caribbean cruise. In the spring, he’s back on the road, opening for television-actor-turned-rapper, Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino. For an island of one, he’s found favor among many. With the rigors of his schedule, he clearly relishes his downtime.
Brown’s apartment is on a service road and, across the street, a 15-foot brick wall blots out six lanes of Interstate 75, which will take you south through Detroit and down to Miami, Florida. There are melted candles in Brown’s fireplace and on the walls hang three unframed paintings by his girlfriend: a pink bonsai tree, a portrait of Brown onstage, and, at his request, four panels of the cartoon Aqua Teen Hunger Force, with particular attention to the bald character Carl’s wispy shoulder hair. It’s Monday, three in the afternoon. The blinds are drawn, and incense distracts from the near-constant burning of blunts, which Brown smokes at an average of about one every 80 minutes, plus supplementary Newports. Also hanging, in their original mid-’90s boxes, are six Starting Lineup action figures of famous athletes who’ve never won championships—Dan Marino, Ken Griffey, Jr., Patrick Ewing—which he says are the best thing he bought all year. He scrolls idly through a cache of beats freshly sent over by Lex Luger, the prodigious 20-year-old Virginian producer renowned for his work for Rick Ross, Kanye West and Jay-Z. Working with him would be Brown’s highest-profile collaboration to date. His computer speakers are small and they sound muddy, adding to the general hungover-in-the-sophomore-common-room vibe.