XXX Turns 10: The Hidden Sadness of Danny Brown’s Melancholic Masterpiece

Paste looks back on the landmark album a decade later

Music Features Danny Brown
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<i>XXX</i> Turns 10: The Hidden Sadness of Danny Brown&#8217;s Melancholic Masterpiece

Rappers were utilizing the internet, technology and virality well before the current age of manufactured TikTok hits and large music sites. As one of the most obvious examples, Soulja Boy was the pioneer of ringtone rap in the early ’00s, making catchy songs and accompanying dances that dominated middle school dances and the tinny speakers of every Nokia and Motorola phone. However, even before Soulja Boy, there was Trick Daddy, who named his 1998 album www.thug.com, eventually buying the address which still leads to the Slip-n-Slide Records site over 20 years later. In 2011, Detroit rapper Danny Brown became one of rap’s brightest stars following the Aug. 15 release of XXX, with most credit going towards The Blog Era.

Burgeoning rap blogs, Tumblr pages, Twitter accounts, message boards such as /mu/ and even YouTube channels like The Needle Drop were part of the Blog Era ecosphere that covered underground hip-hop as a way to provide coverage for the music not seen or heard as widely on mainstream forms of media. For Brown, that required patience. With his nasally voice, chipped tooth and unconventional delivery, Brown was on a wavelength that resonated with Internet-addicted indie kids and bloggers alike.

Prior to his mainstream success, Brown was handed fruitless opportunities, such as an unsuccessful meeting with Roc-A-Fella Records and a near-signing with 50 Cent’s G-Unit Records, whose label head disagreed with Brown’s eccentric fashion choices. He also spent some time in jail, which interrupted his costly routine of taking buses to New York recording studios. Brown wanted to become a rapper, tired of playing the same street politics that kept landing him behind bars. When it became clear that adopting New York rap characteristics wasn’t fitting with his artistic vision, Brown found his true sound right at home in Detroit.

XXX was released as a free mixtape through New York-based label Fool’s Gold Records on Aug. 15, 2011, despite being officially considered his second studio album following 2010’s The Hybrid. The album marked a new decade in Brown’s life, coming just after his 30th birthday. It was his attempt at a concept album, inspired by the cover looking like a vinyl record. It centered around Brown’s duality as he reconciled the darker sides of his drug use and criminal exploits, ruminating on his deteriorating mental health.

These themes resonated with audiences, seeing Brown’s vulnerability as a rare thing amongst the more surface-level rap that dominated the charts. Poignant reflections on his mortality and the decrepit landscape of Detroit following the city’s bankruptcy after General Motors did the same are uttered in the same breath as grotesque descriptions of raunchy sex and comedic punchlines. Brown became a novelty for many who noted his appearance, vocal tone and quick-witted humor as selling points—that does a great disservice to the pain that threads together the whole album.

Opening track “XXX” (pronounced “30”) is Brown’s defense, pleading his case for one more chance for the stars to align. With Frank Duke’s harrowing layered drums and warped vocal samples, the song comes together like a haphazardly pieced together choir as Brown delivers his sermon:

Keepin’ it original, something that’s overlooked
The way a n**** goin’, might go out like Sam Cooke
Or locked up, callin’ home for money on my books
Cause if this shit don’t work, n****, I failed at life
Turning to these drugs, now these drugs turned my life

Despite the album’s harrowing opener, Brown chose the first half of XXX to reflect on the pieces that make him a whole, setting scenes of substance use, partying and sex. The album’s second track “Die Like a Rockstar” comes in with a jarring drum beat, changing the album’s tone into a sleazy recollection of everything that Brown did to get to this point. He forecasts his inevitable death to drug use, positioning himself amongst the likes of Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix.

Brown’s humor serves as a perfect buffer between the uncomfortable candidness with which he describes suffering, and the audience. Little lines like “Do the pretty girl rock, and even though you ugly” on “Radio Song” and the fan-favorite “Stank pussy smellin’ like cool ranch Doritos” on “Monopoly’’ reflect his natural charisma and sense of humor not bound to societal expectations. It’s this rebellion that made him so appealing to these growing Internet communities and indie blogs, and not so appealing to major labels looking to turn Brown into a superstar on the level of fellow Detroit native Eminem. However, some may see the comedic element of Brown’s music as a coping mechanism, as well.

XXX served as a proper introduction to Brown’s brilliant mind, partially aided by stimulants. It was his way of piecing together an autobiographical account of the highs and lows. In the latter half of the album, Brown returns to a more somber state as the lights dim and the curtains close. “Fields” is a sensory overload as he paints a picture of his beloved neighborhood over the cacophonous beat reminiscent of city chatter and bustle. The hypnotic chorus mirrors the monotony of his city as it morphed from industrial mecca to desolation: “And where I lived / It was house, field, field / Field, field, house / Abandoned house, field, field.”

Likewise, “DNA” provides the harrowing clarity following the elation of “Die Like a Rockstar” or raucous posse track “Bruiser Brigade” as Brown realizes “It’s in my DNA, ’cause my pops like to get fucked up the same way.” As he leaves behind his 20s, Brown begins to understand what it means to inherit generational trauma and vices, utilizing them as a means of comfort and survival. It all leads up to album closer “30,” a proper sendoff before he embarks on the new chapter of his life. It mimics a manic state of euphoria, the last tonal shift in the album that crescendos into cymbal crashes and synths as he notes “it was a long journey on a rocky road” that culminated in being “signed to Fool’s Gold, now everything is all gnarly.” However, Brown is also aware of the fragility of fame and fortune, quick to humble himself in the same breath he uses to commend himself:

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
The thoughts of no success got a n**** chasing death
Doin’ all these drugs, hope an OD ain’t next, triple-X

Brown, up until recently, had been defined by the “easy” parts of him. In a world where artists are coached and styled, he broke those expectations and carved a niche for himself while showing a radical vulnerability and growth that has shifted and adapted along with him over the years. Despite this, the narrative surrounding Brown and this era of his career is often reduced to his drug usage. In a 2013 tweet, Brown said, “She gone get mad and call me a crackhead .. I’m starting to think that’s the only joke mfs got.” In 2017, after repairing his chipped tooth, he replied to a tweet saying, “We need that crackhead lookin @xdannyxbrownx back” with, “You n***** don’t wanna see a n**** better hisself for shit!!!!!!! It’s sickening.”

A few months prior to fixing his tooth, Brown released the Jonah Hill-directed visual for “Ain’t It Funny,” off his acclaimed 2016 album Atrocity Exhibition. It features a distressed Brown embedded into a sitcom’s white family, being filmed in front of a live studio audience, descending into chaos as the audience laughs at his pain. “I have a serious problem, please stop laughing” appears in the subtitles as the matriarch of the family chuckles next to him on the couch. In the middle of the video, the music cuts out as Brown urinates on the family’s furniture and pictures. When confronted by the father of the household who asks, “Why are you doing this, Danny?” he replies, “I’ve been destroyed, and if I destroy it, maybe I’ll feel okay.”

Atrocity Exhibition was Brown’s nihilistic point of no return, signaling a frustration with his mental illness and addiction. It was critically acclaimed, with the focus being on its bleak portrayal of his reality. It shouldn’t have had to take such a literal cry for help for people to finally take Brown seriously, especially when he already laid out that groundwork in 2011.

A decade on since Brown’s landmark sophomore album XXX, he deserves the same retroactive respect we’ve given to fellow artists who have been treated unfairly in the media. Looking back on the pain written between the lines of each track, Brown was looking for any amount of reprieve that his music could give him. Now, at 40, he embarks on a new chapter of his life, showing that healing is not linear and he still has a lot to get off his chest. Will you hear it?


Jade Gomez is Paste’s assistant music editor, dog mom, Southern rap aficionado and compound sentence enthusiast. She has no impulse control and will buy vinyl that she’s too afraid to play or stickers she will never stick.