Since breaking through with his 2011 debut XXX, Danny Brown has become hip-hop’s most lovable eccentric thanks to his graphic lyrics, high-pitched drawl, and unmistakable laugh. XXX and its sequel, 2013’s Old, garnered rave reviews and helped the 35-year-old Detroit native land guest spots on tracks by hip-hop luminaries including Eminem and A$AP Rocky.
But Brown, who often tweets about indie-rock artists like Sufjan Stevens and Natalie Prass, makes rap music that’s far from conventional. “I’m here now, so I’ve just gotta stay here,” he says when EW connects with him ahead of the September release of his third album, Atrocity Exhibition. “The way I stay here is just making the most far-out-there music I possibly can and pushing rap music forward.”
For Atrocity, Brown switched to Warp Records — a label known for experimental acts like Aphex Twin and Brian Eno — and recorded a collection of songs that, even with his outré track record, is some of his most avant-garde yet. In other words, Brown’s instrumental aesthetic has finally caught up with the eye-popping rhymes he’s written for years, like the XXX track with a hook that referenced sexual misdeeds with the Pope, the Virgin Mary, and Sarah Palin.
“I’m real nervous,” Brown says when asked how audiences might react to his latest material. “But, you know, I feel like I should be nervous when I’m being this creative.” The rapper opened up to EW about getting inspired by Björk and Tarantino and collaborating with Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt — but not before sharing some major personal news.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What have you been up to since your last album?
DANNY BROWN: I bought a house. I learned how to drive, got a car.
You had never driven before?
No. I used to be scared of it. That was a fear I had to overcome.
So now you’re more mobile than ever.
I wouldn’t say that, because I still like to drink and smoke a lot. I’m not the safest driver in the world, so I don’t drive that much.
When did Atrocity Exhibition come together?
It happened gradually — I wrote it for like two years. I started picking beats and tinkering with ideas around when I played Pitchfork Fest [in July 2014] not too long after Old came out — that drive, to Pitchfork Fest [in Chicago] from Detroit. As much time as I had, a lot of the time it’d be stagnant and I wouldn’t be doing nothing maybe for months and then I’d find a beat. I just wanted to find the right beats.
Paul White, who produced much of your two previous albums, is back in the fold for this one. Did that create a degree of continuity for Atrocity?
Me and Paul just click musically. There’s not too many beatmakers that I meet that just make beats. I hate when somebody say, “I made a beat for you.” You can’t make a beat for me, because I can rap over anything; it was all about the sound that I want to go with. With Paul, he just pretty much goes out there the same way I go out there with my songwriting. It kind of meshes and matches well.
How have you evolved since your last album?
I can pretty much rap over everything. I’m a pretty good rapper. [Laughs] With this one, it was all about finding my sound — this feels, to me, like the first Danny Brown album.
Before, I experimented and tried out sounds, maybe something that was popular out at the time, I might go over something like that. But with this album, I didn’t care about what was happening with music today. It was just all about Danny Brown. What kind of songs does he write? What kind of beats does he rap over?
Atrocity Exhibition definitely sounds of a piece with your previous work, while also being a next step.
It’s all about growing into myself. When you first start making music, you might try to take inspiration out of people you got influenced by — you might have more ambition than creativity. At the time of my life, right now, I’m just all about being creative. I’m here now, so I’ve just gotta stay here. And the way I stay here is just making the most far-out-there music I possible can and pushing rap music forward, like being progressive with it, instead of just trying to do whatever’s hot at the moment.
Were you exploring any themes lyrically on this album?
All my albums are like documentaries of my life. With XXX, I was going through [those topics] at the time. And Atrocity Exhibition is all about everything that happened after XXX came out. Where Old, it was before XXX and the future. It would be Side A [of Old], XXX, Atrocity Exhibition, Side B [of Old]. That’s how this movie would go.
The new cut “Really Doe” features Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and Earl Sweatshirt. How’d that happen?
When I was making XXX, my top three rappers—the three guys that I was like, “Damn, I think they might rap better than me”—were Ab-Soul, Kendrick, and Earl. The guys I looked at as competition are now my friends. We’re like the Four Horsemen.
It’s always good to have that posse cut on a rap album, more so than just having features all over it. I wanted to have that one classic posse cut.
What influenced you during the sessions?
I was listening to a lot of Björk, System of a Down, Korn’s Jonathan Davis, and Cuban Linx by Raekwon. Then I was listening to Talking Heads, but I would say more aesthetic than songwriting-wise. For this album, I didn’t listen to a lot of stuff coming out — maybe [Lamar’s] To Pimp a Butterfly was the only one. There wasn’t too much new stuff that came out that wanted to push me and challenge me, so I was going through a lot of old stuff.
Were you watching anything that shaped your process?
I always watch a lot of Quentin Tarantino movies; the way he sequences his scenes and stuff, I try to do that with my songs. I’ve watched Hateful Eight, like, 50 times already — I have it on f—ing Blu-Ray and s—. I watch that movie all the time, man. I can just repeat lines verbatim. People don’t want to watch it with me because I’m sitting there saying the whole movie!
There’s always some comedy thrown in there, too. Curb Your Enthusiasm is always a big deal to me. You know how most people probably watch SportsCenter or stuff like that? I watch a lot of Curb, especially when I’m writing.