Danny Brown exploded onto the rap scene in 2010 with his debut mixtape The Hybrid, featuring his unique style centered around eclectic beats, clever lyrics, and squawked vocals. As music critic Anthony Fantano describes it, Brown takes the typical topics of hip-hop and “[brings] them to such an extreme they… become parody… a kind of cartoony embrace of drugs and violence.” Brown consequently stood out in the contemporary hip-hop landscape as a freak and an outsider, exploring sounds that none of his contemporaries dared to touch. He expanded upon this niche with two later albums: XXX in 2011 and Atrocity Exhibition in 2016. The two albums served as some of the most experimental, hedonistic, and profane pieces of modern hip-hop— closely reminiscent of the Camp aesthetic described by Susan Sontag in her 1964 essay “What is Camp.” As Sontag stipulates, Camp is a love for artifice, aestheticism, exaggeration, and “instant character” (10). Brown largely embodies this Camp aesthetic through both his sound and content, but at the same time subverts it with his portrayal of the brutal reality that accompanies the lifestyle he depicts.
In much of his work, Danny Brown exemplifies the camp aesthetic with his sonic choices. One of the first ideas that Sontag addresses in “What is Camp” is that “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration” (2). Brown’s delivery typifies this perfectly: the voice he uses is a freakish, over-the-top yelp, an exaggeration of his already shrill voice; the media company Pitchfork describes it as a “strangled yap” and an “abrasive honk.” The sound effectively conveys Brown’s wild energy and exemplifies the artifice and exaggeration that Camp celebrates. In another depiction of Camp, Bruce LaBruce’s “Notes on Camp and anti-Camp,” LaBruce asserts that “Camp itself should almost be defined as a kind of madness, a rip in the fabric of reality that we need to reclaim”— an ethos that Brown’s music embodies fully. Brown’s instrumentals, particularly on Atrocity Exhibition, illustrate this best: they are absurdly off-kilter and unconventional, sampling sounds from all kinds of music to create fast-paced, frenzied songs. Take the song “Ain’t it Funny,” for example, which samples the blaring horns on the chorus of Nick Mason’s “Wervin’” and its echoes of a pulsating tuba and spastic saxophone. Paul White, Brown’s head producer, loops this
Brown’s delivery typifies this perfectly: the voice he uses is a freakish, over-the-top yelp, an exaggeration of his already shrill voice; the media company Pitchfork describes it as a “strangled yap” and an “abrasive honk.”
syncopated tuba and saxophone, distorting them to sound even harsher; uses the dissonant horn chorus to introduce and enhance the hook of the song; and adds throbbing bass to amplify it all. The product is an exceedingly paranoid, unnerving, and chaotic piece of music, which, combined with Brown’s vocals, has a pervading sense of insanity— exactly as LaBruce believes Camp should. Brown’s lyrics, which vary between being comedic and alarming, effectively complement this soundscape and accentuate his embodiment of Camp.
Brown further exemplifies the Camp aesthetic with his lyrics: the outrageous anecdotes and comparisons that make up the stylized image of Brown’s lifestyle are prime examples of exaggeration, aestheticism, and instant character. As Cady Lang recounts in her article “What Does Camp Mean Exactly,” “the word ‘Camp’ comes from the French verb ‘se camper,’ which roughly translates to ‘to strike an exaggerated pose.’” Brown does exactly this with lyrics that depict his wayward lifestyle; on XXX, Brown creates a stylized world centered around this lifestyle, exemplifying the “daring and witty hedonism” and “outrageous aestheticism” that is Camp (Sontag 8, 14). The song “DNA” illustrates this best: in the first verse, Brown describes waking up in his mansion and having an extravagant breakfast with drugged-up women. He then boasts:
Everynight like a bachelor party in Sin City
Bitches sniffing coke off each other titties with rolled 50’s
Life I live like Charlie Sheen and Rick James
Going hard till it ain’t a dollar to my name.
Brown adds on the hook that such a lifestyle is “in [his] DNA” because his family all “like to get fucked up the same way.” He thereby “strikes the exaggerated pose” of a chronic debauchee, someone predestined to live an unhinged lifestyle, addicted to drug, sex, and luxury. Such an image epitomizes Camp’s “daring hedonism,” and, since it is a gross amplification of one aspect of Brown’s life, aligns with the “outrageous aestheticism” and exaggeration of Camp. Another aspect of Camp is “its elegant conventions for representing… the total presence of character” (6). As an adept lyricist, Brown exhibits this constantly. His music is loaded with clever similes and impressive rhyme schemes— the kind of “flourishes” that Camp celebrates. One of the most spectacular displays of this skill is on the song “Adderall Admiral,” where Brown raps:
Eating on an Adderall, wash it down with alcohol
Writing holy mackerel, actual or factual
Out for the capital, matador ya capsules
Hassle the bitch in a castle with ill grapples
Tackled her asshole, my dick like a lasso
Fucked her in her mouth, she washed it down with Tabasco.
Brown is able to maintain an astounding rhyme scheme with two- and three-syllable internal and end rhymes, all while describing his drug use, rap skills, and an odd sexual encounter. Instead of plainly stating these details, Brown chooses to recount them in this skillfully embellished way, creating this “total presence of character.” He also does so through ingenious similes, such as on “Fields,” where he boasts, “I had the fiends hitting rocks like the Pilgrims.” Taken literally, the crack addicts to whom Brown sold drugs “hit the rocks,” or smoked crack, like the Pilgrims “hit,” or landed, at Plymouth Rock. The line also reveals the escapist nature of both parties: Brown’s clients smoke crack to escape the pain of their lives, just as the Pilgrims sailed to American to escape religious persecution in England. Such a masterful simile is the peak of the “instant character” that Camp celebrates.
However, Brown simultaneously refutes these aspects of his Camp aesthetic by adjusting his sound and illustrating the consequences of such a lifestyle. As he contends in an interview with Complex, “The most responsible way [of rapping] is always telling both sides of the story… if you gon’ tell [listeners] about the high, tell them about the hangover too.” He does just this with the songs “Nosebleeds” and “Party All The Time” placed back-to-back on the latter end of XXX. Both feature stripped-back instrumentals and, more remarkably, Brown’s chaotic squawk replaced by a gruff, somber tone. The change in sound signals the gravity of these pieces, which serve as a disclaimer through their descriptions of lives ruined by cocaine and partying, respectively. Thus, just as Brown departs from the Camp sound, he also undermines the hedonistic Camp lifestyle he glorifies. Brown also uses his own struggles to do this. As he laments in a hoarse shout on the title track “XXX”:
Turning to these drugs, now these drugs turned my life
And it’s the downward spiral, got me suicidal
But too scared to do it so these pills will be the rifle
Surpassing all my idols, took the wrong turn
But can’t go back now so let that blunt burn
‘Cause now it’s my turn if I fuck it all up
Took a while to get here now I depend on these drugs
He reveals that his drugged-up, sex-ridden lifestyle that resembles “success” has actually left him empty, stressed, and depressed; in fact, it likely will kill him. Brown thus refutes the Camp lifestyle he often promotes with a jarring counterpoint— the impact of which is amplified by the contrast between this brutal candor and the embellished image of Brown’s lifestyle. He therefore subverts the very Camp aesthetic that he creates, forcibly warning listeners of the morbid reality of such a path.
Overall, while Danny Brown embodies the Camp aesthetic with his exaggerated sound and outrageous yet clever lyrics, he also subverts this image by adjusting his sound and describing the stark realities of the lifestyle he portrays. Unfortunately, this stylized picture of his lifestyle can seem like a genuine promotion without an understanding of Brown’s Camp aesthetic. As Brown bemoaned in 2014 with a series of Tweets directed at fans, “Y’all just want me to be goofy… Y’all think I do drugs ‘cause it’s fun… Y’all want me to overdose… don’t be surprised when [you] get what [you] asked for” (Kornhaber). He subsequently revealed that many of his fans do not see past his Camp image; they fail to understand his actual messaging. It therefore is necessary for consumers of art to probe deeper into works— for the sake of both the art and the artist. Such examination will reveal a more robust message and elucidate the artist’s perspective, thereby accomplishing the goal of art.
Brown, Danny. “DNA.” XXX, Fool’s Gold Records, 2011. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/track/26iXP0pZ6tbG8vCQLNDjaq?si=mTiBSEcxReGu6_esXRHJEg.
—. “Adderall Admiral.” XXX, Fool’s Gold Records, 2011. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/track/21b6vgUtfX7O3bPCm7Vddy?si=JaEFci91TfSUVsfqB9hTDA.
—. “Nosebleeds.” XXX, Fool’s Gold Records, 2011. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/track/7tbOZtGVW7M4dacYSBzD8B?si=vk8QKvWlTf6j1W7TDAfptQ.
—. “Party All The Time.” XXX, Fool’s Gold Records, 2011. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/track/2cFYfUEQrrpWZrjXdXQbzO?si=P_4DUP2NTdy4FvS_7bczoA.
—. “XXX.” XXX, Fool’s Gold Records, 2011. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/track/3fMYdbxKBDKtLa1HB9iBDK?si=WZRYSgH6Q_GhzMewtWobzw.
—. “Ain’t It Funny.” Atrocity Exhibition, Warp Records Limited, 2016. https://open.spotify.com/track/7ItFoQDmQIh3MAPsxiP6Vt?si=yKheZs-qRumY_0zSeKikPg.
“Danny Brown Cares About Rap More Than You Do.” YouTube, uploaded by Complex, 29 Sep. 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7YuoyBuGSs.
Greene, Jayson. “Danny Brown XXX Review.” Pitchfork, 26 Aug. 2011, https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/15753-xxx/. Accessed 7 Oct. 2020.
Kornhaber, Spencer. “Danny Brown and the Freedom to Be Depressed.” The Atlantic, 6 Oct. 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/10/danny-brown-atrocity-exhibition/502742/. Accessed 26 Oct. 2020.
LaBruce, Bruce. “Notes on Camp.” Nat. Brut, April 2013. https://glreview.org/article/notes-on-camp-and-anti-camp-2/. Accessed 5 Oct. 2020.
Lang, Cady. “What Does Camp Mean Exactly? A Comprehensive Guide to the 2019 Met Gala Theme.” Time, 2 May 2019, https://time.com/5581241/met-gala-2019-camp-theme-explained-photos/. Accessed 5 Oct. 2020.
Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Partisan Review, 1964.
“WhoSampled: ‘Ain’t it Funny’ by Danny Brown.” WhoSampled, https://www.whosampled.com/sample/456241/Danny-Brown-Ain%27t-It-Funny-Nick-Mason-Wervin%27/. Accessed 25 Oct. 2020.