Before the 31st of December 1999, the 21st century was anticipated as the new renaissance. A liberating technological revolution was on the horizon, propelling us toward a prosperous utopia. The recent triumph of democratic consumerism over despotic statism would deliver us wealth and self-determination, the internet would bring us closer together, and the age of information would mould into us more knowledgeable and rational human beings. Yet by the end of the 2010s, the exact opposite is true for the vast majority of us in the globalised world. The wealth has bubbled up to the top on an exponential scale, and democracy is consistently undermined by self-serving and untouchable demagogic elites. Social media armed with an incomprehensible abundance of "information" leaves us disinformed and confused. The internet's 4-billion-strong populace thus turns toward the same binary narratives that governed the Cold War, shepherding lost souls like the Pied Piper of Hamelin into an age of vindictive anger, existential despair, and disillusion with the modern world.
Pankaj Mishra's damning diagnosis of our era - detailed in his book which I'm currently absorbed in, Age of Anger - has helped me contextualise many of my choices for my personal favourites of the past decade. Initially I couldn't place a finger on the threads of the emotive statements that loosely linked them, but this intro of general ideas should pull this album series together in a more coherent, thematic and (hopefully) entertaining way which gives the reader a psychological map of the decade, and some good albums to listen to. Although the economic benefits of recorded music are disappearing for artists, with musicians earning scraps in the advent of streaming, I would argue that the album, in fact, finds itself in a stronger artistic position than ever before. A positive that the internet has undoubtedly brought, is a much greater sense of independence from record labels standing over artists' shoulders telling them what will fly and what won't.
In many ways, I feel blessed to have come of age in this musical landscape. The 'retromania' that still commands airwaves and playlists condescendingly tell us with selective 20/20 hindsight that the music industry and output of the past was better, but I couldn't disagree more. Having the instantaneous ability to access the music of the past as a reference of understanding present forms, and many albums provide a unique insight into experiences of this era, experiences both inside and outside of our own. Regardless of the immense pain the world is in, music will always be door for is, an escape route that still keeps us in touch with both the merits and the ills of this generation. One day I'll re-listen to the albums of this series in 20 years, and like all the previous generations' horribly cliche maxim, say, "music was great in my day."
#10: 'XXX' by Danny Brown (2011)
The first half of the record gives us a front-row seat to Danny's 'atrocity exhibition' in his manic yapping voice, cackling at the world in front of him. He treats no pursuit of pleasure with restraint or censorship, and leaves no details to the imagination. Aggressively swinging at who major label sellouts in music industry over ominous piano chords and pounding 808s, he calls out those who "don't care about music, just first-week sales" in his own 'Radio Song'. His brand of "anti-clean rap" is especially gory when it comes to sex and drugs. 'Die Like a Rockstar' lays drugs on the table like flaunting a deck of cards, putting himself in the presence of yesterday's young lost famous: "River Phoenix, '93, VIP / with some drugged-up porn hoes all around me / like Teri Diver, Linda Wong / all in hell havin' orgies where the horns growing long". And numerous tales of his debauched sexual rendezvous' are recounted throughout with the most bleak humour; he even dedicates a whole song ('I Will') to ...um... let's just say, putting his head down.
The succession of this half sees Danny partying with a grimace on his face in the midst a decimated urban hellscape whilst living large. Instrumentally, the whirr of motors scrape in the drunk posse trap banger 'Bruiser Brigade' and the metallic clinks and clatters of 'Lie4' and 'Adderall Admiral' are instances of beats illustrating the post-industrial wasteland of Detroit. Nicknamed "Motor City", or "Motown" for short, it was once the bastion of American car manufacturing but saw perpetual decline from the 1960s as factories closed, freeways ploughed through neighbourhoods thus encouraging urban segregation, and culminated in the 1967 race riots and subsequent middle to upper-class white flight. It still scars the city to this day. The climax of this bender that Danny is on, rooted in generations of torment, comes with 'Blunt After Blunt' and 'Outer Space'. Both punch the hardest, the former's dramatic, hulking piano chords convulse amongst sporadic whistles of reverbed 16-bit fuzz, and the latter is like the soundtrack of a 1950's sci-fi horror infused with gutteral 808 knocks, with arguably his best performance in his uncomprising rap purism.
Suddenly, the party is over, and the comedown hits. Time slows down, as does Danny's now-despondent voice. He sheds the persona of raunchy libertine, and lays himself bare as just a flawed human being. He contemplates the relationship between his lifestyle and the upbringing from his own family: "it's in my DNA, 'cause my [mom and] pops like to get fucked up the same way". On 'Nosebleeds', he paints a heartbreaking portrait of a woman who is on a downward spiral with him, who parties all the time. A broke, cocaine addict and sleeping from house to house since her college years, despite recently being in rehab. "Everytime she do it, she says this her last time". His manner is soul-searching, considering his own toxic behaviour which rubs off on her and other women he lusts over. The track turns particularly Francis Bacon at the end, she takes a bump and her bodily sensations kick in: "feeling like any second the world can end / and when it freeze her, it make her pussy wet / face rushing, going numb, nipple hard on them breasts / sniffing 'til it drip, back of the class / blood running down her lips". The gory image is aptly undignified and grimly detailed, and her painful story is not alone in the city, nor America, nor the world.
Whether East side, West side, North side, or South West, abject poverty looms on every corner, so much so that scrapping for copper is a way of scrapping for life. As he trudges from street to street, gazing at the empty 'Fields', Danny's description speaks for itself:
"It's like they all forgot man nobody care about us
That why we always end up in prison instead of college
Living in the system working kitchen for chump change
Lost in the streets niggas playing that gun game
Where nobody wins just a bunch of mommas losing
Dead body in the field, nobody heard the shooting
We living in the streets where the options is limited
'Cause it's burnt building instead of jobs and businesses"
As Danny scouts for the copper of abandoned houses in 'Scrap or Die', he gears himself up again to alleviate the 'fight or flight' anxiety of breaking and entering to put food on his table. Getting caught by an officer threatening to shoot him, one would expect the album's narrative to end for our troubled protagonist, but it doesn't. '30', the closer, sees the hedonist return with wilder eyes and a louder yap. Self-destructive tendencies intensify after his arrest, giving him double the sex drive, double the narcotic dosage, and double the disaffection. His voice breaks and splutters over the intense screeches of synthesisers, and with "tears in [his] eyes" recites a harrowing vision:
"Dying in the arms of a blonde, blue-eyed 20-something
Don't know her name but the paramedics chest-pumping
"30-something black male, OD'ed off of pills
That he wasn't prescribed, but they took his life"
[...] The thoughts of no success got a nigga chasing death
Doing all these drugs, hope for OD'ing next, Triple X"
And we find ourselves back at the beginning, Danny takes his next pill be it blue or red, and the wheel turns once more. The "downward spiral" continues. The cyclical nature of the trap that black America has been locked in for generations upon generations at the hands of institutionalised racism. Haunted by the past in the environment of houses where communities once thrived. Harassed in the present by people indoctrinated by 400-year-old prejudices and by systems that keep them subordinate. Thus the horizon of a good future seems impossible. Detroit is a significant example of this, one of many places worldwide that has exploited millions of human beings for their labour, their livelihoods, and threw them in the gutter and forgot when it suited them. As bleak and hopeless as XXX is, it confronts the brutal reality of the quality of life for millions of black Americans with unfiltered grit and unabashed honesty. But hope is never lost. The spiral doesn't have to go "down" for the Dannys of the world, it can go "up" too.