It’s a cliché backup plan for rappers with priors: If it weren’t for music, they’d be back on a corner. Danny Brown figures otherwise. “If I wasn’t a rapper, I could be a critic,” he offers. So it’s not a surprise that the pundits who could be his peers finally caught on to the Detroit MC, thanks to XXX, the free album he released last summer that landed on year-ending best-of lists from SPIN, Rolling Stone and about a billion blogs. “Of course that makes a difference to me,” says Brown about the accolades. “I think I make music with the critics in mind more than the actual fans. It was just always about seeing if people were as smart as I am. And they were, I guess.”

The 30-year-old (thus the Roman numeral album title) has garnered comps to Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Eazy-E for both his jarring delivery and completely unfiltered subject matter. “I have no limits on life,” he says, joking, “You can’t walk around with teeth that look like this and be self-conscious.” Aside from having lost his two front teeth (he chipped them both separately, then they decayed), Brown regularly dons David Bowie – skinny jeans and has rocked everything from a captain’s hat to KISS T-shirts onstage. Last year, he shaved off Mac Dre – inspired long braids in favor of a half-shaved, post-punk ’do brought on by the Joy Division albums he was listening to while penning XXX.

“In high school, I was the type of guy that would come in the classroom late, just so everyone could look at my outfit,” says Brown. “It was always a shock-value thing with me and clothes. I try to stick out as much as possible because I want that look, whether it’s a look of disgust or a look of ‘Damn.’ I just want you to look at me.”

He honed his range of musical and fashion influences growing up in the Linwood section of Detroit, where his mom watched Purple Rain religiously (“As a kid that was the first shit that I was like, ‘Yo, I want to be like that’”), and his father was house DJ. Born to teen parents, Brown remembers listening to ghettotech and having his pops force Wu-Tang and Tribe on him before he eventually discovered E-40 and Dizzee Rascal on his own.

Brown, né Daniel Sewell, formed various rap crews while coming up. But after getting busted for drug dealing in high school, he got serious and started haunting underground hip-hop venues looking to run into J Dilla and Black Milk. “I came from selling dope; I wasn’t really on no open mics and going to hip-hop shops and all of that,” he says. “I looked at Detroit as a whole and figured out I couldn’t just start my own movement. There are scenes, and I figured out what scene I wanted to be in. The best was obviously the Detroit underground hip-hop, J Dilla scene.”

His work with Dilla led to a spot on the posthumously released “Jay Stay Paid” and studio sessions with MF Doom and Madlib, at which he learned how to structure songs, rather than just spit. “I didn’t even know about 16 bars; I knew 35 seconds,” he says. In 2008, after another drug bust, Brown made a demo that got passed along to then Roc-A-Fella A&R Travis Cummings, who invited Brown to New York to record at the same Queens studio as the Dipset and then-unknown Nicki Minaj. There, a studio engineer befriended Brown and eventually intro’d the unsigned rapper to Tony Yayo, who invited him to tour with G-Unit and collaborate on the 2010 mixtape Hawaiian Snow before 50 Cent ixnayed signing a skinny-jeaned MC.

That’s when Brown took to the Web, where he basked in the success of two free releases, 2010’s Hybrid and XXX. “Putting out a free project where people haven’t heard one song and it just causes hysteria — I feel like I’m ill for doing that,” he boasts.

Now that his maverick tastes have finally been validated, Brown heads out on a 20-stop tour opening for Childish Gambino in March and is currently working on a for-pay debut album slated for release in fall 2012. True to form, Brown’s ears are wide open, looking for the next influence that’ll unsettle fans. “I’ve been listening to, as funny as it sounds, a lot of trap music,” he says. “Lex Luger actually sent me a lot of beats, so I might be working with him.” Unlike his Internet-built counterparts, though, Brown remains more concerned with quality than clicks. “I’m just trying to make the best possible music I can make. If something comes out of it and songs take on a life of their own, then so be it. Right now, I’m all about making what Danny Brown should be making right now.” —Elena Bergeron

(This article originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of ANTENNA.)