by Patrick Preziosi
As musical boundaries continue to dissolve at such an alarming rate, the albatross of being a “buzzed about” artist hangs heavier with each year, even if we’re only going as far back as 2011-12. Looking back from the last quarter of 2019, certain bands and musicians who dominated the cultural conversation seem frivolous now, and others seem retroactively undeserving of the hand-wringing that may have accompanied their ascents. At the knotty middle-ground stand Detroit rapper Danny Brown, and Brooklyn-based guitar band, DIIV, both with new records out in the same week, who’ve weathered such blowback and suffocating praise that they’re brought closer than one may initially think.
In the year span that Brown dropped XXX and DIIV Oshin, the two became zeitgeist defining statements, the former ushering in what Spin referred to as the “New Rap Underground,” and the latter becoming the perfect distillation of the bubbling dream-pop scene tethered to Brooklyn label Captured Tracks (with rap and rock now so thoroughly intertwined, this specific time period seems to be the genesis for a more genre-adverse musical sphere). XXX came out before Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City (2012), and Oshin before Mac DeMarco’s 2 (2012). Though wildly disparate records in sound, it’s hard to imagine DeMarco and Lamar retaining such massive popularity without the prior foundation of DIIV and Brown. The two have become sturdy institutions, amassing followings more on the cult spectrum – as opposed to other counterparts of theirs – as they’ve chugged steadily along.
However, surviving the tides of relevancy is an achievement enough in and of itself; the amount of rappers and bands I listened to who were championed in the same era and now seem to be relegated to the outer fringes of critical attention are way up in the double digits. Though the music of DIIV and Brown was markedly personal from the jump (especially in the case of Brown, who worked tirelessly for years before finally breaking through with XXX), their subsequent output retains an added note of weathered poignancy beyond the lyrics-sheet, just in their own artistic endurance.
For DIIV particularly, their fairly small discography (now at three records in seven years) has always felt at risk of being cut unceremoniously short for reasons beyond the music. Heroin, car theft, and repeated attempts at rehabilitation have dogged frontman Zachary Cole Smith as much as demands for new music have – the gap between Oshin (2012) and Is the Is Are (2016) being particularly long for a working indie band. Instead of harping on Smith’s now-checkered history, it seems more appropriate to cede the floor to his newest record, Deceiver, which, according to him, attempts to right the narrative presented on Is the Is Are.
Smith’s attitudes to his own record may feel a tad harsh on his own part, but there is a straightforward and plainspoken emotional tenor on Deceiver that announces a new frankness in title alone; Smith’s addiction made him deceitful, a much more explicit statement of being than the marble-mouthed Is the Is Are. Already on the beefy and winding opener, “Horsehead,” Smith is self-castigating more so than he ever was on records prior: “fuck it all,” he bluntly offers at one point. As much as DIIV’s new proclivity for fuzz pedals that err on the side of My Bloody Valentine squall, Smith’s terse confessions cut through the most on repeated listens.
Of course, DIIV is still a guitar band, one whose debut was full of intertwining, motorik guitar patterns that sonically eclipsed Smith’s flights of poetry. Deceiver is more balanced, favoring earworm flourishes that act in the place of hooks (“For the Guilty”, “Horsehead”), while navigating the murkiness of both recovery and relapse (“Skin Game”, epic closer “Acheron”). Though the songs were workshopped during a tour with – and also feel particularly indebted to – Deafheaven, there’s a richer history of guitar pop in the record’s DNA, traceable to acts like Teenage Fanclub or even the more conventional side of Spiritualized (whose J. Spaceman has also chronicled the travails of addiction).
Similar to Smith, Brown too has found trouble reconciling different threads of his own personality and musical aspirations into his own music, though to an always wonderfully disorienting effect. His followup to XXX, Old (2013), saw him effectively pushing his two song modes (debauched dubstep rap and bald-faced confessionalism) further from one another, in a meta experiment to prove how the two actually influenced one another. Then, Atrocity Exhibition (2016) smashed everything together, creating new sonic shapes that didn’t meld perfectly together, but were all the more thrilling for it.
uknowhatimsayin¿ – executive produced by none other than Q-Tip – is a disarming record for how workmanlike it is, running at a svelte 31 minutes in 11 songs. The now-expected tales of addiction, debauchery, anxiety and the like are (mostly) swapped out for Brown doubling down on his already well established love of the intricacies of language. “I could rap a cat off the back of a fish truck,” he offers on the album’s stunning, winding closer, “Combat”. You won’t find anything as harrowing as XXX’s “Party All the Time”; instead, Brown offers little nuggets of his personal history scattered across more conventional hip-hop elements, in fact making the record reveal itself more and more on subsequent listens. “Dirty Laundry” vacillates between a bizarre story involving an Amsterdam peep show and lines like “Ever seen a roach with babies have babies? / In the hood like whatever”.
Elsewhere, Brown seems to be acting as hearting between more and more disparate figures from the different musical realms he inhabits. On the lurching, JPEGMAFIA produced “3 Tearz”, he invites a bulldozing tag-team by Run the Jewels, and then has JPEG himself do his best Pharell impersonation on the Flying Lotus/Thundercat helmed “Negro Spiritual”. On “Combat”, Q-Tip shows up for a freewheeling hook that recalls the best of A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (2016). Brown exists at the center of his self-constructed hip-hop universe however, content to whap you upside the head with hard truths before chuckling, “weak like the knees on D. Rose”.
Both Deceiver and uknowwhatimsayin¿ are far from both artists’ most definitive statements, but they retain such a degree of success that those projects could easily be next. DIIV and Brown toe the line of making records purely for fans and making those that’ll garner new audiences, reigning in some of the density that’s guided past work, while still allowing left-field indulgences. There’s always been the lurking risk that the most recent album from either artist could be their last; now, that couldn’t seem further from the truth.