Detroit rapper Danny Brown made a name for himself over the past decade as a party boy rapping about drinking and drugs in his signature high-pitched voice.
But now he's older, approaching 40, Brown's re-branding of sorts, branching out to other forms of entertainment.
Earlier this year his comedy talk show Danny's House premiered on Viceland. He's just come out with his fifth studio album, uknowhatimsayin¿
Speaking to NPR's Michel Martin on All Things Considered, Brown says the new album — executive-produced by Q-Tip — is "the least stressful album I made."
He talks about how he got into hip-hop at a young age, how his style developed and feedback he's received after being open about anxiety and depression issues.
On what he likes about the new album
I think it's my first time I feel like I'm talking to people more so than just rapping about what I'm doing or what's going on. I'm more so giving people advice, to up-and-comers, people that been through what I've been through, stuff like that.
On getting started rapping in kindergarten
I went to school one day and it was show and tell. But I didn't know that it was show and tell and I had nothing to show or tell. So I [was] just like, forget it, and just rapped in front of the class — and then everybody went crazy. So I was like, I don't know, maybe I got something. Then I rapped for my cousin ... and he was like, "You didn't write that!" I was like, "I didn't, I just kind of came up with it."
So I kind of knew by the way people were responding to it that I had something. So I just kept going.
On breaking into the industry in his early 30s and developing his sound
I just think growing up in Detroit [there] was never really an outlet. It wasn't like I can go downtown and get a record deal. ... And then the whole open mic scene here and it was just the street rap scene. I just never really fit all the way into either them.
But me, I just would take like Greyhound buses to New York and just go out there and hustle my music. ...
I just didn't really know myself back then. I was probably rapping like everything else. I didn't really find my own sound at the time. Once I started doing it my way and figuring out who I was then that's when things started taking off. ...
I was influenced from all different sides of hip-hop. As much as I like the East Coast stuff, I like the West Coast stuff, I like the down South stuff and also like the underground alternative stuff or even the U.K. stuff. So I just think I was just taking everything and just putting it into my arsenal like a blender. I would get my influences but then I would try to figure out a way to make them mine.
On tweeting and being open about anxiety and depression
I think [when tweeting about anxiety and depression in 2014] I was just overworking myself. You can't be burning the candle at both ends. It was getting to the point I was going to have to choose one or the other. It was either going to be me partying or me working. So that's all that was.
And I just had to take a lot of time off for myself. Putting out albums today and just touring and touring and touring. Then after a while you start living unhealthy, and once you start living unhealthy you start thinking unhealthy. So that's all that was. I'm taking better care of myself now. You know a healthy body is a healthy mind. ...
It feels good, especially when I get messages from other kids telling me how much I helped them with similar type of problems. So I figured that's what I'd do it for in some sense. Like when you put out that type of energy as negative, it could be you get some positive stuff back. Everybody helping each other, reach one teach one type of thing.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And finally today, our next guest has been described by MTV as one of rap's most unique figures in recent memory.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIE LIKE A ROCKSTAR")
DANNY BROWN: (Rapping) Brown bless the mic like gesundheit. Bud 'bout the size of a bonsai, kick it like Muay Thai, flow like sci-fi in high-def.
MARTIN: That's Detroit rapper Danny Brown. Early in his career, he gained a reputation as a party boy with a big mop of hair, rapping about drinking and drugs in his signature high-pitched voice. But now he's older, approaching 40. He's cut his hair, and he's branched out to other forms of entertainment. He has his own talk show on Viceland called "Danny's House." And he's now out with his fifth studio album titled "uknowhatimsayin," all one word. And some might argue he's been performing his own unique brand of public service by speaking candidly about issues that are often difficult for everybody to talk about but seem especially difficult for men of color to talk about, like depression.
I spoke with Danny Brown yesterday, and we started by talking about why he likes his latest album so much.
BROWN: I think it's my first time I feel like I'm, like, talking to people, more so than just, like, rapping about what I'm doing or what's going on. I'm like more so giving people advice and just - the up-and-comers, you know, people that been through what I've been through, stuff like that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEME SONG")
BROWN: (Rapping) Listen here, Little Richard. I don't know what got into you. Did more for the game than you. That's why I had to cut into you. You need to be checked
MARTIN: How did you get started rapping to begin with? I hear that you're something of a prodigy, that you actually started rapping in kindergarten. Is that true?
BROWN: Yeah because I went to school one day, and it was show-and-tell. But I didn't know that it was show-and-tell, and I hadn't done a show or tell. So I was just like, forget it and just rapped in front of the class. And then, you know, everybody went crazy. So I was like, oh, no, maybe I got something. Then I rapped for like my cousin or something. And he was like, you didn't write that. I was like, I didn't. I just kind of came up with it. So I kind of knew by the way people would respond to it that I had something. So I just kept going.
MARTIN: Do you remember your kindergarten rap?
BROWN: I mean, it was probably something so simple. You know, back in those days, it was (rapping) my name is D in the place to be.
That type of - you know?
MARTIN: (Laughter) Love it.
BROWN: It was some "Cat In The Hat" rhymes, you know?
MARTIN: Yeah, you probably didn't have that much vocabulary to work with but still.
BROWN: Not at all.
MARTIN: You had the basics together.
BROWN: I had the flow, you know? That was good enough.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAVAGE NOMAD")
BROWN: (Rapping) Shower any beat with the dirtiest vocab. This was the '70s. I'd be a savage nomad, shirtless with a vest, staying warm by burning trash.
MARTIN: But you broke into the industry in your 30s, which is a little older than a lot of rappers start out. Why is that?
BROWN: I just think - growing up in Detroit, it was never really an outlet. Like, it wasn't like I can go downtown and get a record deal, you know? So it wasn't really an outlet. And then, it was like the whole open mic scene here. And it was just, you know, the street rap scene. I just never really fit all the way into either of them. So it worked out for me, by me. I just would take, like, Greyhound buses to New York and just, you know, go out there and hustle my music.
MARTIN: But the thing that's interesting, though, is that you have a sound that everybody knows is yours. There's something about you that just is very distinctive. I'm wondering if maybe that time - because it took a while for you to get the limelight, maybe you kind of were on your own, creating more of your own unique sound without a lot of influences. I don't know. What do you think?
BROWN: No, I think for the most - I just didn't really know myself back then. I was probably rapping like everything else, you know? I didn't really find my own sound at the time. Once I started doing it my way and figuring out who I was, then that's when things started taking off of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIRTY LAUNDRY")
BROWN: (Rapping) High tide, Gain off the Arm & Hammer. Swim towards the current, system try to drown me. Stain your record like Clorox 'n' darks. Spin cycle had four tops for one out the slums. Nobody gave me nothin'. Had temptations, so I hustled, David Ruffin. Papa was a rolling stone, so I sold [expletive] to 'em. Beam up, Scotty. We got lift-off, Houston.
MARTIN: It's a couple of things I wanted to talk about here. One of the things that people I think appreciate you about is your range. Do you know what I mean? You have lots of different flavors in your sound. Is that something you've consciously worked on?
BROWN: Yeah because I was influenced from all different sides of hip-hop, you know? As much as I like the East Coast stuff, I like the West Coast stuff. I like the down South stuff. And I also like the underground alternative stuff or even, like, the U.K. stuff. So I just think - I was just taking everything and just putting it into my arsenal, like - you know? - like a blender, you know? I will get my influences, but then I would try to figure out a way to make her mine, you know?
MARTIN: But I also do want to talk about a lot of the sex and drugs, you know, that for a fact because you're a parent yourself that this is - something that has always troubled people about rap is they feel like that people - some people are kind of glorifying that which is unhealthy, right? Do you think that...
MARTIN: Do you think that you were as well?
BROWN: I would say, in some sense, I wouldn't give it a ying without the yang. A lot of songs - you can probably listen to mine. It sounds like a party. But when you dig deep into the lyrics, you know, it's really giving you the other side of it. So I don't think I necessarily - I mean, I have my fun songs, too, but I also have the other side of the coin. So I think when people are just talking about it one way, then yeah. That's - that can kind of be glamorizing it. But I think me - I'm more so bringing awareness to it.
MARTIN: Well, speaking of that other side of it, I think one of the things that people have appreciated about you - in recent years, at least, certainly have acknowledged - is your own honesty about just how difficult life can be, not glorifying it but keeping it very - being very honest in a way that, perhaps, some people don't always hear, particularly just being honest from a man.
I mean, you know, back in 2014, you tweeted out some bleak thoughts, saying you can't sleep. My anxiety is an all-time high, said you all just want me to be goofy and make a damn fool out of myself. Y'all don't give - basically saying y'all don't sort of care about me. And you've talked very openly about some difficulties that you have gone through.
So I wanted to ask you - first of all, like, do you mind sharing, like, what was going on back then and how are you doing now?
BROWN: I think, at the time, I was just overworking myself. You can't be burning the candle at both ends, you know? You can - it was getting to the point I was going to have to choose one or the other. It was either going to be me parting or me working. So that's all that was. So - and it was like I just had to take a lot of time off for myself. It was like, you know, putting out albums and then just touring and touring and touring.
Then, you know, after a while, I mean, you start living unhealthy, you know? And once you start living unhealthy, you start thinking unhealthy, you know? I'm taking better care of myself now. That's all that - you know, a healthy body is a healthy mind.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEST LIFE")
BROWN: (Rapping) Came from the sewer where hot dogs got boiled. Right up in the same pot, uncooked, the [expletive]. I went from flippin' them mats to flippin' them sacks. Hide and seek, send spots to out on, we sell [expletive], facts.
MARTIN: Well, how do you feel now that you've - you know, that you've put it out there, both in your conversation and in your music, that you've been very open about the fact that, sometimes, life is struggle, and some of that struggle involves things like depression and anxiety, that sometimes - I'll just say it - that, sometimes, a lot of men don't have an easy time talking about? How do you feel now that you've put it all out?
BROWN: I mean, of course, it feels good, you know? Especially, when I get, like, messages from other kids telling me how much I helped them with similar type of problems. So I figured that's what I'd do it for in some sense. Like, when you put out that type of energy as negative, it could be, you know, you get some positive stuff back. And it be just like, you know, everybody helping each other, like, you know, reach one, teach one type of thing, you know?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEST LIFE")
BROWN: (Rapping) 'Cause ain't no next life. So now I'm tryna live my best life, livin' my best life. 'Cause ain't no next life. So now I'm tryna live my best life. I'm livin' my best life. Let the past be the past...
MARTIN: That was Danny Brown talking to us about his latest album, "uknowhatimsayin," one word. Thank you.
BROWN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.