Danny Brown is beyond it all. For so long, he has cultivated an image of drugs, sex, and grimy hedonism, not explicitly condoning it as much as showing the effects of it as a poet laureate of hip-hop as much as a survivor of that lifestyle. This was no more apparent than on his frightfully hectic and brutally intense album Atrocity Exhibition, one of a few apexes for experimental rap of this decade. Since then, Danny has gone through some changes. His wild hair got trimmed down to a tight fade, the trademark dental damage repaired and polished to a porcelain sheen. His fashion game stepped up considerably. The music was reined in a bit.
After Atrocity Exhibition, one might think that it was a free-fall descent into full-blown drug-induced mania when it was really terminal velocity – a maximum point from which there was no going further. His latest album, uknowhatimsayin¿, is still Danny – very Danny – but it’s a different perspective. He’s calmer, more collected, and for what? Well, to be your savvy, crass, battle-worn uncle apparently. He still weaves hard lessons and gonzo-like detail into his raps covering drugs (check), sex (check), some hedonism (check), and other topics like getting rich and the rap game (check – and I hope you read all of these ‘checks’ in Danny’s voice).
The album is executive produced by Q-Tip of all people, a decision I’m curious about. Did Tip suggest a calmer approach for this album? Was Danny already at that point? Regardless, calmer it may be, but it’s no less weird. Every song on here has some trippy elements, unorthodox samples, and a waviness about it. Frequent collaborator Paul White returns to produce, Tip produces three songs himself, JPEGMAFIA contributes, and we even got Flying Lotus and Thundercat on the same track.
The ‘case-in-point’ of the album is no doubt “Dirty Laundry”, one of the Q-Tip productions. This is classic Danny: welding wordplay and slick flow to a palpitating beat. As such, it also has some of my favorite lines on the whole album:
‘High Tide, Gain off the Arm and Hammer
Swim towards the current, system try to drown me
Stain your record like Clorox ‘n’ darks
Spin cycle had four tops for one‘
Literally each of those four lines has a different flow to it, showcasing his versatility. Earlier, Danny’s as candid as ever, pairing a line alluding to the eventuality of your past coming to light with a line about getting head showing that levity (and sex) are never more than a step away. “Belly of the Beast” has some more lyrical delights like saying he’s ‘anemic with the ink, you a Stevie Wonder blink‘ over an airy, zombie-like moaning sample. “Best Life” is a pretty positive song shouldered on a sample of Tommy McGee‘s “Make You Happy” which makes it sound like a Disney song (also courtesy of Q-Tip – noticing a pattern?). Danny can’t help but match the optimism of the beat with the hook, which is a stark contrast to the verses that theme themselves on his deadly drug dealer roots in Detroit. The relative grey morality of hip-hop storytelling is something he’s always been great at molding to his will and this album isn’t much different.
One of my favorite songs is “3 Tearz” which features Run the Jewels. El-P steals the show a bit with a couple real gold-star bars, with special attention to a great one with a reference to another heady MC: ‘True doom, eat up your crew like MM.. FOOD.’ Killer Mike‘s contribution is very boastful and insulting, coming off more like I logged onto Xbox Live for a rousing game of the shooter du jour with all the your mom-isms, though I did like the rhyming within the latter part of the verse (‘I sip on fine wines, fine dine with dimes and nines/I got an Einstein mind and I still tote iron‘).
I think my one bigger gripe with this album is a lack of solid hooks. Danny’s usually pretty good with forming a nice, catchy hook, but here it seems harder to come by. It might have something to do with a few of them being handled by guest artists that just don’t mesh well with the rest of their respective songs. Regardless of who does it, the best ones are in “Change Up”, “Best Life”, “Negro Spiritual”, and “Combat”, which has Q-Tip and Consequence on it (though uncredited). It does detract slightly from the overall experience and memorability of it all, but there’s other bars here that are well worth your time and mind space.
uknowhatimsayin¿ is oddly sobering, just not in the way you’d expect from someone like Danny Brown. It doesn’t disavow his past as an artist or person, it simply recontextualizes and makes it more digestible, though just barely. Q-Tip did quite well managing this album in addition to producing my favorite three songs on the album. I obviously miss the more unhinged direction that Danny was working toward sonically over the last few years, but his personality is sturdily intact. At this point, I’m sure not even an elephant tranquilizer would take Danny down, so if you like him, you should vibe well with this. You know what I’m sayin’?