For Danny Brown, dizzying experimentation and heavy introspection tend to go hand in hand. The rapper has always been open about his relationship with addiction and mental illness, but more than a decade after the release of his breakout record XXX, it’s easier to trace its evolution across 2013’s Old and 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition, as a lifestyle of debauchery appeared inextricable from cycles of trauma and self-destruction in ways that became impossible for any audience to ignore. 2019’s uknowhatimsayin¿, a self-described “standup comedy album,” is harder to slot as part of this trajectory, a concise yet compelling project that delivered personal anecdotes while embracing a lighter, more playful tone. Brown’s latest, Quaranta (which means “40” in Italian), continues to pare things back but finds him at his most reflective yet. It takes on the difficult task of straying from the frantic persona that led him where he is – “This rap shit done saved my life and fucked it up at the same time,” its opening line goes – without sacrificing his personality or sense of humour. Mostly, it succeeds.
Brown wrote most of Quaranta at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, and he completed it before checking himself into rehab earlier this year. He’s a masterful storyteller, which is why it’s surprising how much his confessional tone and bracing vulnerability here feel like therapeutic rather than narrative tools – like he’s using rap to process in real time instead of chewing on insights from therapy. On ‘Down Wit It’, he sounds worn-out and regretful, reframing the thesis of the title track in relation to a painful breakup: “Lost the only one that love me, these hoes don’t care/ Got too confident, thought you wouldn’t go nowhere/ Now it’s all over, can’t stay sober/ Deep in my depression, hoping I can get over.” As somber and restrained as his delivery naturally is, more hazy than dazed, Brown doesn’t compromise on the intricate musicality of his lyricism, with ‘Celibate’ standing out as a highlight. It’s easy to get lost in his flow, but harder to miss the big takeaways.
Where Quaranta falters is when those takeaways are presented with a certain lack of nuance. The title track is powerful as an introductory statement, but the rest of the record struggles to elaborate on it in a way that’s consistently engaging. Without the vibrancy and colour of uknowhatimsayin¿, the addictive noise and density of Atrocity Exhibition, or the chaotic, oddball charisma he channeled as recently as this year’s joint LP with JPEGMAFIA, Scaring the Hoes, the album is left feeling somewhat aimless. It starts off strong, with a trio of songs – ‘Tantor’, ‘Ain’t My Concern’, and ‘Dark Sword Angel’ – whose pummeling, hypnotic energy he’s more than capable of matching. But on ‘Jenn’s Terrific Vacation’, a track broadly tackling gentrification, he begins to lose direction, his observations sharp but haphazardly put together – when you try to take it in as a whole, Quaranta can feel like that, too.
Despite its often bleak, self-defeatist attitude – “Should I still keep going or call it a day?” he raps on ‘Hanami’ – Quaranta is an album you can ultimately only feel warmly towards. That’s partly due to how its mood shifts towards the end, where the songs become more mellow and understated, Brown’s openness more inviting than frustrated. Just as you might mistake it for exhaustion, he closes the album with ‘Bass Jam’, a song that glistens with nostalgia; though it’s the second longest track here, the ghosts of his past never threaten to swallow its simplicity or momentum. Even if the past 30 minutes haven’t been the most thrilled you’ve been by a Danny Brown project, it feels necessary rather than awkward, and you’re left with nothing but excitement about where it might lead him.