Perseverance Through Decadence: How Recent Detroit Rap Releases Illustrates Survival

Posted: October 22, 2013 in Album, Dyscyplynary Action, Hip-Hop, Music Review
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It is going to take a lot to keep the city of Detroit down. A city that was once a Mecca in automobile development and hosted the largest record label in urban music has been plagued by economic strife and political turbulence. It’s been just over a week since the sentencing of former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick – who is mainly responsible for the robbery of millions in hard-earn money from his own citizens – and a few months since the entire city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. It is the biggest fall from grace an American Metropolis has faced in decades, becoming a wasteland riddled with depression, decay, and self-destruction.

However, when I look at Detroit and the constant jokes thrown on Twitter and TMZ, it is not the internal subjugation which has been focused on. Coverage is not even about the city’s fledgling sports franchises (the Tigers having recently been eliminated from the playoffs and manager Jim Leyland’s eventual departure brings another dent). Every time I hear of the city, I think of their rich musical history. Those moments where Motown would reign supreme and help build the careers of Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye. I grow to appreciate their burgeoning Hip-Hop scene, which was brought to the forefront primarily by a skinny, eccentric white male by the name of Marshall Mathers. It was Detroit’s history which made me have a unique affinity towards it; I wanted to see every individual from that area win after being an underdog for so long.

We had Big Sean speak on the plight of his city (though briefly), with his recent projects Detroit (fitting) and Hall Of Fame. There was an unfathomable amount of support from fellow comrades from the 313, showing unity that was well needed at a time of crisis: their home was slowly being left for dead, not only by their own police and government, but the rest of the country as well. It was easy to see Detroit as the American punching bag as much as it was the state of Florida for having a series of ridiculous crimes. Yet still, after all the emotional and economic beatings, Detroit still stands with its fists up and ready to fight again.

Earlier this month, two of Detroit’s most recognizable rap acts, Danny Brown and Black Milk, released their full-lengths Old and No Poison, No Paradise. As two records that represent entirely different sounds, they both paint a vivid picture on the drug epidemic that destroyed the city’s urban population. Brown was the witness, victim, dealer, and user throughout his life and he used Old as a template to tell his stories in morbid detail. On “Torture”, he raps about how he saw one dope fiend burn his top lip off trying to catch a high, and saw another two beating each other with hammers. It’s grizzly in its effect viewing from a child’s eyes, as he meditates on the shit he has seen, and he later morphs into serving those same fiends and avoiding the police in the process.

Much of ‘Side A’ is Brown coping with earlier fans wanting his Detroit State Of Mind  street raps while balancing it with the newfound following of EDM festival attendees. He strikes in his calm, introspective demeanor telling stories of his childhood (“Wonderbread”, “25 Bucks”) and attempting to erase those memories with the same vices that took down so many in his neighborhood. One of the more gut-wrenching moments is found on “Clean Up”, where he refuses to respond to a text from his daughter while he’s fucked up on pills and weed-induced comas. To quote the cliché, too much of a good thing can be bad, for Danny too much of a bad thing is good for him to function properly.

With production varying from gritty left-field beatsmiths Oh No, Frank Dukes, and Paul White to trance-out electronic producers SKYWLKR and Rustie, Old is a culmination of Brown’s musical taste and methodical approach to carving out a body of work. He yearns on the album closer “Float On” that he “prays to get old” in order to see his influence in rap, as if he knows his time on Earth will be short with his lifestyle. Old is not only a remarkable success in re-introducing Danny Brown, but it puts him in the pantheon of rap’s elite today.

In the case of Brown’s frequent collaborator Black Milk, his approach is more direct and soulful, though just as powerful. The follow-up to 2010’s Album Of The Year, Milk’s latest LP feels as ominous as the metaphorical album art. The drums are heavier, scary even, but it brings back the popular Tronic synths that made Black Milk so beloved to begin with. He also challenges himself lyrically and thematically, improving his storytelling ability and creating a cinematic atmosphere throughout. The obvious standout on here is the two act drama “Sunday’s Best/Monday’s Worst”. Split into two tracks on the album, it was initially released as a single song detailing how children in Detroit would often have two options and neither was positive.

“Sunday’s Best” had a boy who dreaded going to church with his family and would rather be video gaming and watching cartoons than “listening to the man on the cloth talking about the Man Of The Cross”. It transitions to “Monday’s Worst” – equipped with a chilling Nat Turner Rebellion’s “Never Too Late” sample – where the child has become a man swallowed into the black hole of violence. With Milk in first-person for the entire duration, it left open the recourse on whether the subject in the song grew up to become either the man with the gun or the inevitable victim. It was the perfect depiction of how something so venomous has become the norm in a city use to it.

Since its inception, Hip-Hop has been the social vehicle for participants to shed light on the ills of their community and treatment of Black America. With Old & No Poison, No Paradise, they tell a very similar story of surviving through vulnerability.

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