“Say I’m getting old and time’s running out / Repeating instrumentals, tryna figure patterns out.” That’s one of the first things many of us ever heard Danny Brown say, one of several ruminations on aging and relevancy he expresses across XXX. “When I turned 28, they like, ‘What you gon’ do now?’ / And now a n**** 30, so I don’t think they heard me / That the last 10 years, I been so fucking stressed / Tears in my eyes, let me get this off my chest,” he hopelessly concludes on the mixtape’s final track, “30.” “The thoughts of no success got a n**** chasing death / Doing all these drugs, hope for ODing next, Triple X.”
This was a decade with plenty of against-all-odds come-up narratives, but Danny Brown’s story reflects the internet in ways so few others do. Let’s consider the circumstances surrounding Brown’s rise for a moment. He begins dropping tapes with the Detroit group Rese’vor Dogs in 2003, and eventually released solo projects after repeated run-ins with the police. Throughout those years, Brown was trying to follow the narrative that every rapper at that time was: Release a free mixtape, put it online, hope the right people hear it, and if it doesn’t catch, just rinse and repeat. And here’s the thing, it almost worked! Roc-A-Fella Records found Brown after “Yes” found local success, but it didn’t pan out. It’s a part of Brown’s rise that can’t be understated: He did everything right and somehow it didn’t work out. In his own words on XXX: “it’s the downward spiral, got me suicidal.”
You can find all of those mixtapes on YouTube or DatPiff if you really want to. The truth is that they’re… fine. They’re competent. They’re mostly dime-a-dozen historical documents that feature production that sonically captures the bland idiosyncrasies of mixtape culture at the time, even if Brown’s talent as a rapper is closer to fully formed; at the very least you can certainly hear what would’ve made an A&R person intrigued by Brown. It was only when 2010’s THE HYBRID was released, a release that is remarkable only in retrospect but hardly close to the quality of his later work in sound or scope (to put it in terms Brown would appreciate, his PABLO HONEY), that the right people heard him, and even then it was Fool’s Gold, a relatively new indie with no guarantees of success, a far cry from Roc-A-Fella.
And then the part of the story we all appreciate: the breakthrough. When XXX appeared online in the summer of 2011, it was drenched in last-chance desperation regardless of if you knew the subtext—no one who heard Brown say he’d be ODing on “30” questioned that self-proposed dark fate, and had that mixtape not hit with outlets like The Needle Drop and Pitchfork, there’s not a doubt in my mind that Brown would’ve died an internet footnote in some quiet corner of Detroit. 30 years old, a drug addict, on his second chance, referencing Joy Division and KID A as inspiration; that desperation is so essential to both XXX and to understanding how razor-thin the margins of success were, the difference between an upvote or a “like” meaning we never heard from Brown again. Scan through Twitter or Facebook on any given day and you’re going to see stories about people down on their luck who did everything right, who, through no fault of their own, found the deck simply stacked against them—it’s what made Brown such an immediately likable character to root for from the jump. How many people get second chances and nail them?
XXX was a microcosm of the things we love about the internet. We love an underdog. We love watching someone grow before our eyes. We love championing those who seem like they’re one of us in real life from the safety of our keyboards. And Danny Brown was all of those things. And yet for every Danny Brown, there were a dozen like him that did OD, or never got the call from Fool’s Gold. Over the last decade especially, we’ve come to understand and accept that the internet is a fickle place. Fame is inherently tied into virality now. We often talk about the number of timelines that exist at any given moment, and the timeline where XXX doesn’t catch? That’s a reality that’s easy to see, and one that Brown probably thinks about every day.
But even after XXX hit, Brown continued to exemplify the kind of artist whose career appeased the internet in the 2010s. We loved to rally behind those whose careers endured through quality rather than quantity—his follow-ups, OLD and ATROCITY EXHIBITION, instantly became critically acclaimed masterworks, the kind of musician who looks to get a Best New Music on Pitchfork more than have a hit single. We loved cult heroes—Brown caps the decade getting a PEE WEE’S PLAYHOUSE-style TV show and releasing his most lax, carefree record yet in UNKNOWWHATIMSAYIN¿, a far cry from where he started, and we love that for him. We loved those that are Online™ but not Online™ enough that we tire of them (let’s make that Angel Olsen collaboration happen). And quietly and most prominently, we’ve loved those that are so self-aware of their own narratives that they also desperately know it could all be undone at a moment’s notice—the only sign of humbleness in a frequently overbearing and oblivious world. Danny Brown is inspiring, his music electrifying, and his narrative heartening. Throughout a decade that became harder and harder to find someone or something to root for, rooting for Danny Brown always felt right.