After years of toiling in Detroit underground scene, Danny Brown finally broke out at age 30 with his mixtape XXX. He spent the next few years becoming a staple of the summer festival circuit, entertaining young crowds with his catchiest tracks, such as “Die Like a Rockstar,” “Dope Song,” and “Smokin & Drinkin.” Like nearly all of Brown’s music, those songs tell of addiction and depression, albeit with more upbeat instrumentals, and after a while, seeing all of those revel in his debauchery took a toll on him.
It got to the point where Brown split up XXX’s follow-up, Old, into two halves, “Side A is real, that’s the album. Side B is the performance piece,” he said in an interview with Stereogum. “What people don’t understand is a lot of those songs are about depression,” he continued. “’Smokin & Drinkin’ to forget about it, just partying to get away from all your problems.”
Last year’s Atrocity Exhibition was the moment when Brown stopped making concessions for people who like “Festival Danny Brown” but don’t listen to “Album Danny Brown.” His latest video, for album track “Ain’t It Funny,” tackles the issue of audiences delighting in his downward spiral.
Directed by Jonah Hill, the video stars Brown, famed film director Gus Van Sant (?!), Growing Pains alum Joanna Kerns, and a couple of kids as your typical dysfunctional family in a fake ‘90s sitcom called Ain’t It Funny. Brown’s drug-addled antics make him the moribund Fonz or Kramer of the show, much to the amusement of the studio audience but not so much to Brown himself. “I’m fucked up and everyone thinks it’s a joke,” he says, dead-eyed, to the camera.
It’s all reminiscent of Bojack Horseman, a show that follows a Bob Saget-style sitcom star past his prime and into a bleak existence, many times showing the stark contrast between the cheery, family values-focused sitcom and Bojack’s dark personal life off-screen. Danny Brown is far from being washed up-- especially for a rapper his age-- but his career is facing a dilemma now that he’s no longer, as he said in 2014, “mak[ing] music just to perform.”
Hopefully, the majority of his audience will be able to recognize him for his willingness to plumb the depths of his soul, rather than his ability to get crowds of young, affluent kids to turn up.