One of the most exciting years in pro wrestling took place in 2021, due in large part to CM Punk’s unforeseen debut in AEW. After growing disillusioned with WWE and its upper staff members, Punk walked out of the company and away from the sport in 2014. Fans chanted his name for years following his departure despite his absence. In between his retirement and his return, he attempted to fight in the UFC and starred in a handful of small horror films. His 2021 return to pro wrestling was a lightning rod that drove new eyes to AEW and produced some of the medium’s most acclaimed storylines. However, explosive press conferences, backstage brawls, and tension with younger talents led to AEW firing the Chicago wrestler. In a 10-year timespan, Punk had gone from one of the most well-beloved pro wrestlers of the century to a bitter husk capable of only emanating vitriol.
It’s easy to ask why Punk, so dissatisfied with pro wrestling, didn’t stay away from it after that first retirement, but he tried. He branched out to other avenues, but it was always wrestling for him. To become the best in the world often means sacrificing the ability to do much else. This is as true for pro wrestling as it is for rapping, a position Danny Brown ruminates on throughout Quaranta. Similar to Punk, Brown has long been heralded as one of the top performers in his field and has seen his passion eat away at him. Yet, while Punk became jaded, Brown slipped further into his vices, eventually entering rehab earlier this year.
This context dictates the album’s muted and downtrodden tone. It opens up Brown like a scalpel as he blames himself for not accomplishing more, for relationships gone sour, and for, well, everything. Fortunately, rather than instigating a pity party, Brown has a way of connecting with others because his statements appeal to the portion of the brain that recognizes human emotions and craves affection. “Down Wit It” is a downer, but you empathize with Brown as he puts his failures on display. It’s part of his charm. Instead of relying on humor to connect through lines like “Got my finger in her like she’s a rotary phone,” he’s short and cutting. “Never would’ve thought I’d fuck up who I’m closest with/ All my fault, for most of it/ Thought I knew everything, but don’t know shit,” he raps, and while it’s by no means the most original bar about break ups, they reveal that even Brown can feel the same kind of fucked up that we all do beyond his hedonism.
It’s worth noting that this mood means that Quaranta is largely devoid of Brown’s signature character work. He’s not his usual explicit or shocking self for the most part and the beats aren’t mind-boggling to any degree. This is not the Brown that conquered avant-garde and psychedelic miasmas on Atrocity Exhibition. Yet, it’s wrong to frame that absence as a negative trait. Quaranta is the most sensitive Brown has been since XXX and, even more importantly, it’s his most mature work. He’s much more reflective, boldly evident by comparing one of the most memorable lines from XXX on “30,” “But I would always tell myself that it’s gon’ get better/ You know who you is? You the greatest rapper ever,” to Quaranta’s opening: “This rap shit done saved my life/ And fucked it up at the same time.”
The record further comments on Brown’s future through its guests Bruiser Wolf and MIKE, each of which represents the future that Brown’s presence begot. Brown executively produced the former’s 2021 album Dope Game Stupid while MIKE’s dour delivery traces a lineage to Brown’s XXX work. They are proof of Brown’s positive impact on rap and they return the favor with their performances, easily two of the record’s best for different reasons. Wolf’s track is as strange, off-beat, and Detroit as they come, counterbalancing Brown’s conventional cadence. Meanwhile, you couldn’t find a more fitting rapper for a project lost in a stupor such as this than MIKE, who spent most of his career in a similar haze. Predictably, he sounds elegant because he’s in his environment.
The principal diversion from Quaranta’s overall vibe is the meme-infested Alchemist-produced “Tantor,” which proves that Brown is most excited when he can make music with others. They energize him. He squeaks about Chinese Mike, drug deals, and feet. It’s as close as he comes to classic Danny Brown on Quaranta, a distinction that may disappoint those searching for maximalist Brown but it feels like a necessary direction. It would’ve been inauthentic and inarticulate to perform otherwise given the state of mind he was in when creating Quaranta. Plus, Scaring the Hoes is still just under a year old and possesses more Danny energy than all of uknowhatimsayin¿
Unfortunately, not every track flourishes simply because of its subject matter. “Hanami” promenades for too long and too repetitively, undercutting its revealing verses. It’d benefit from discarding its final chorus. That being said, Brown still conquers a beat he has no right to rap over. This time, it’s Sven Wunder’s “Hanami,” a low-stakes jazz number that’s frankly, beautiful, if entirely divorced from Brown’s subject matter. In his hands, the track’s flowery undertones are reconstituted as regrets incarnate.
Quaranta closes with the intersection between joy and melancholia—nostalgia. As Brown reveals the music that bound his family together, it becomes apparent how he became a rapper and why he can’t quit. Music is tied to his ecstasy. Through this lens, Quaranta ends by answering the question its title track asked, “Why not quit?” It isn’t because Brown can’t do anything else or because he’s so indebted to the game that to leave would amputate most of his being. It’s because he recognizes the power it wields for healing. Why would he give that up? Whether that joy comes from working with others like JPEGMAFIA or from saying what people can’t say themselves, Brown has that power. As he says, “Let the music talk for us.” He makes the music so we don’t have to talk.
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Colin Dempsey is a Toronto-based writer with publications at Consequence, Invisible Oranges, Spectrum Culture, and more. There will always be more to write about, and he wants to cover it all.