Photo by Justin J Wee
Danny Brown sits quietly at a hotel restaurant table in Manhattan’s West Village, staring into the distance with a stoic expression. There are no other guests in the outdoor seating area other than the rapper and his manager, but he would stand out even in a crowded room: today he’s wearing a vibrant look that includes a collared shirt in shades of blue, an extremely baggy pair of jeans and the bright red MSCHF Astro Boy style boots that stunned the internet earlier this year. When a waiter comes by to take drink orders, Brown immediately asks him to take the alcohol menu. “I’m feeling good mentally,” he says afterwards. “I’m happy and everything. I just don’t want to be around that right now.”
This interview was originally scheduled to take place in Detroit, Brown’s hometown and the place where his addiction problems began. Instead, here we are in New York on an afternoon where smoke from a Canadian forest fire has shrouded the city in a gray haze. Since moving from Detroit to Austin in 2021 — and especially since entering rehab this spring — Brown, 42, has been trying to adopt a healthier lifestyle. When the waiter returns, he orders duck breast and a Coke.
Brown’s penchant for drugs and alcohol was a central theme in the music that made him one of the wildest and most celebrated rappers of his generation, dating back to his breakthrough 2011 album XXX, on which he rapped about recording Hennessy made, peppered with Molly and “sniffing Adderall off the counter in my kitchen.” Listening to him back then was like falling backwards off a cliff – his songs were full of adrenaline, euphoria and an uncertainty that felt exhilarating.
Brown has fond memories of recording XXX after hours at a studio in Detroit where he knew an engineer. “I had to get up at five in the morning and we snuck in there and he gave me an hour or two to get as much out of it as I could,” Brown recalls. “I would probably knock out three or four songs.” Looking back, this period was also marked by hints of darkness. “I was wild,” he continues. “I had just started experimenting with drugs and stuff. Back then there were the funny stages. But I was old enough to know what I was getting myself into.”
After the release of XXX, his life changed drastically. As he entered his thirties, he began touring extensively and made regular money from music for the first time. “Back then I was making albums and stressing out a lot about the reception,” he says. “I almost took drugs to deal with this shit. I wouldn’t sleep. Worry my career will be over if people say it sucks.”
Brown sees his seventh studio album, Quaranta, due out this fall, as a chance for closure. It is by far his most personal album, a confessional driven by pain, isolation and hitting rock bottom. Compared to his previous works, he sounds more serious and focused and takes aim not only at mediocre rappers but also at his own shortcomings. “It was almost like I was pulling it out,” he says. “I didn’t know how long I would live. It was one of those ‘I’m going to say whatever the fuck I want to say about this shit.'” I’m going to let everyone know how I feel.'”
As we talk, a man walks past the table and engages Brown in a conversation about the changes in fashion among younger generations sparked by these viral boots. Soon he offers to sell us some weed. “A year ago he would have been my buddy,” Brown says with an exhale as the stranger walks away disappointed. “I had no intention of quitting smoking weed. I was about to go to rehab for drinking. But once you get in there, you learn so much shit.”
In late March, after a disastrous drunken podcast appearance in which he criticized his label, Warp Records, Brown entered rehab thanks to a scholarship from the Recording Academy’s Musicares program. “I started eating healthy when I was there because there was good food there,” he says. “The rehab I went to costs like $50,000 a month.”
In addition to a healthier diet, Brown found faith, spirituality and a new outlook on life in rehab. A decade ago, the thought of death scared him. “I was afraid of that shit,” he says. “Now I just look at it like, ‘Man, when it’s time, it’s time.’ It’s almost like life is a school, and when you die, it’s graduation. When the higher power is ready for you to graduate, you will graduate. And obviously I didn’t do what I was supposed to do here.”
This realization didn’t necessarily begin during his sobriety, he admits: “I once had a crazy mushroom trip where I saw my grave and my shit. I’ve felt much more comfortable with it since then.”
As recently as last summer, he claims, he was taking up to 14 grams of psilocybin mushrooms daily. “I think it really messed with my brain,” he says. “Because I can lay down and get ready for bed and see pictures and stuff. A person who’s never taken mushrooms before would be freaked out by the shit I see when I close my eyes.” These days, he sleeps eight to 10 hours a night. “I guess I’m catching up on all the sleep I didn’t get while on medication. And I have vivid film dreams.”
Performing at SXSW in March 2023, shortly before he entered rehab. Griffin Lotz for Rolling Stone
Brown has probably never been more sharp as a rapper than he is now. Quaranta follows his 2019 album “uknowhatimsayin¿,” which was executive produced by Q-Tip; his surprise collaboration with JPEGMAFIA this year titled SCARING THE HOES; and perhaps best of all: a skull-liquefying verse on Billy Woods’ “Year Zero.” “I still love hip-hop,” says Brown. “I got to the point where I stopped worrying about the negative and started only paying attention to the positive.”
Unfortunately, he doesn’t remember much of the session with Billy Woods as he was unconscious at the time. “I was an alcoholic; I’m an alcoholic,” he says. “I walked around the Lower East Side, stopped at bars, drank everywhere… I probably shouldn’t have gone based on my physical state. But when you’re passed out and drunk, you try to do what makes you happy. I’m like, ‘What? Billy Woods in the studio? Damn it, let’s go over there!’ I went there and rapped. And I don’t even remember that shit.”
He wrote most of Quaranta at Bruiser Brigade’s home in Detroit, where Brown and the artists signed to the label he founded stayed and worked all day on their own projects. It was a tough time for Brown: He had just gone through a bad breakup and had moved to rapidly gentrifying downtown Detroit when the pandemic hit. “I’m stuck in this damn penthouse,” he says. “I can’t even receive guests. Security at the door. I’m sitting in there alone, depressed, drinking damn coke and getting drunk alone every night.”
At the same time, he was under financial pressure due to canceled shows, including a booked European tour. “I was literally broke,” he says. “All my savings went to waste. My credit card had expired. But I also did it to myself. I still did drugs. Before I know it, I’ve just snooped on my house and no money is coming in.”
Over the past year, he has reflected on his early life in Detroit in the 1980s. For the most part, he had a good home life as a child, with incentives like video games to distract him from hitting the streets. Knowing that Brown was interested in rap music, his father bought him turntables for recording. “I grew up with inexpensive studio equipment,” he says. “I wasn’t allowed to go into a real studio and get my own money until I was 18 – and by then I already knew how to do shit.”
He says that he and his siblings were often left unsupervised by their young parents: “In a way, they still wanted to be children. They wanted to be able to live their lives. My mother still wanted to go to the discotheque on the weekend. So she would leave us with whoever would look after us – uncle or someone like a cousin. And we got into a lot of bad things that children shouldn’t get involved in.”
But he also learns to take responsibility for his actions. He practices the serenity prayer he learned in rehab. For him, making an album like Quaranta – a cathartic release from everything he went through before getting help for his drug and alcohol problems – is a chance for him to start over.
“It’s almost like it’s my way of saying shit,” he says. “I was so damn busy asking, ‘Will I still be alive tomorrow?’ It was almost like I died, that’s what I have to say. That’s exactly where I was with it. That’s all my shit.”