DANNY BROWN No shame in his game.
Josh Wehle

"MAKE SOMETHING GREAT and share it with no one," tweeted Andrew 'Noz' Nosnitsky, founder of the influential rap blog Cocaine Blunts.

In other words: Forgo external gains as your motivation. Inhabit the process as a practice for both achieving transcendence and cultivating self-actualization. Make art for art's sake.

This is how Danny Brown began.

"I used to download music on the internet," the Detroit rapper says. "But I never really thought about putting my music on there or nothing. My music got around because my brother started putting it on the internet. It wasn't because of me."

When the songs were first posted, Brown was in jail for drug-related offenses. "When I got locked up, my brother made me a Myspace page and started putting my music up," he says. "And my music started getting on blogs like HipHopHavoc, and stuff of that nature. It gave me an audience and let me know that somebody would listen to my music."

Brown began releasing a slew of mixtapes, including the four-volume Detroit State of Mind, and 2008's Hot Soup, which was just reissued for Record Store Day. Labels like G-Unit and Roc-A-Fella sniffed around but ultimately passed, largely because of Brown's personal style—he is flamboyantly weird, a proud outsider, and the traditional rap gatekeepers weren't having it.

Still, Brown was inspired by the online response. In 2010 he put out The Hybrid, his first non-mixtape "album." But it was 2011's XXX that caught national attention, initially making waves with salacious descriptions of Brown's penchant for giving oral sex. I remember putting on songs like "I Will" for friends and waiting to see if they'd laugh or cringe.

"I ain't tryna take you shopping, buy your ass no shoes/I'm tryna lick that clit while I'm looking up at you," Brown raps nasally, over a wobbly, narcotized, snapping beat. "No shame in my game, girl, look back at me!"

But upon further listens, the record revealed a more complete world.

"I like things with layers," says Brown. "And I always like figuring something out because it's more rewarding, you know?

"XXX was about desperation. As misogynistic as a lot of the shit was, I made a song like 'I Will' just to show that I wasn't misogynistic. I like it on my knees—that song is like praising women almost, you know?

"When you're going through depressing situations," he continues, "it might feel like all females are bitches and you don't give a fuck about a ho, you know what I'm saying? And that's what XXX is about. It's about desperation."

The title hinted at it, signifying sex but also, in Roman numerals, Brown's age. In terms of breaking into rap, 30 is racing against the clock—even more so for a one-time drug dealer from Detroit. Around him, Brown felt a bleak, destitute world closing in.

It was there, in the midst of that cyclone of dissolution, depression, and the mountains of drugs he took to cope, that Brown found his voice.

"I guess if I were in my 20s, things would be a lot different for me," he says. "But I'm 33 years old, you know? I don't know. Nothing really surprises me at this age."

On Old, released in 2013, Brown goes deeper. His bangers, driven more by dance-influenced, serrated, skittering, high-BPM electronics, become all the more jarring; his introspections, particularly the back-to-back wallop of "Lonely" and "Clean Up," are more emotionally incisive. On "Clean Up," Brown experiences a moment of clarity in the midst of a drug-fueled hookup—he doesn't know the woman's name, and it invites the darkness. Feelings, doubts, and fear begins to spiral.

Brown confesses a litany of missteps and guilt: how consumption has led to strife, from a faltering relationship with his mother to becoming an absentee father to his daughter. Throughout, he minces no words. The honesty is courageous, though Brown sees it more simply.

"I don't make music with my brain," he says. "I make music with my heart. So I only do stuff that I feel."

He continues: "If I thought about it, then yeah—hell yeah—there's a lot of shit I'd probably be like, 'Hell naw, I'm not about to say that shit.' But I didn't think. I just felt. And it felt good. It felt right. So I kept it. And I keep it. That's the way I'll continue to make music."