Eccentric Detroit rapper Danny Brown is back after a three-year gap to release his fifth LP, uknowhatimsayin¿ — his second via Warp Records.
Despite a past of turbulence, filled with drug habits and financial struggle, Brown has proven to be one of the most consistent and unique voices of rap this decade. He’s released four previous albums, two of which are blueprints for experimental rap excellence, and amassed a great deal of respect and adulation from fans, critics and his peers.
His last album, Atrocity Exhibition, received rave reviews and was arguably the most challenging rap album to come out in the 2010s. A yelp-y delivery from Brown, potently weird, animalistic beats and profoundly disturbing bars describing the outcomes of drug addiction added up to an unruly listening experience that won’t be forgotten any time soon. The album also featured the track “Really Doe,” one of the best posse tracks of this generation.
Going into his new record, expectations were tossed out the window. How does an artist follow up such a fantastic artistic statement like Atrocity Exhibition, especially when everyone considers it the peak of his career? Well, with uknowhatimsayin¿, Danny Brown tones it down a bit but still maintains the interesting characteristics of his music that separates him from other rappers in the industry. The album proves that Brown doesn’t have to make the most experimental album under the sun for him to still be making worthwhile music.
Lyrically, the album is on point, as expected, although Brown takes a slightly more pensive approach here. Most of the lyrical content matches the instrumental tone of the song, which once again continues to be one of Brown’s strongest artistic qualities. Albums like the infamous XXX (the other album I described as “experimental rap excellence”) showcased a stark transition from vulgar, brazen party raps over buzzing electronic beats to introspective, somber hip-hop toward the end.
Songs on uknowhatimsayin¿ like “Change Up” and “Shine” feature some of the most mature lyrical writing he’s ever pulled together, while a track like “Dirty Laundry” is abstract and metaphorical. The track “Best Life” is an update on Brown’s mental outlook on his life, the triumph over his addictions and his relinquishing of fears that once plagued him as the hook boldly states, “’Cause there ain’t no next life, so now I’m tryna live my best life, living my best life.”
There are songs on the album where Brown brings back his perverse lyrical content and wayward flows, like “Savage Nomad” and “Negro Spiritual,” but nothing that quite reaches the extremity of his last album, on songs like “Ain’t It Funny” and “When It Rain.” Overall, it’s a lot of similar lyrical material, but it’s updated and scattered throughout 11 tracks. It’s not mind-blowing, but it doesn’t disappoint either.
The album has a distinctly vintage flavor, thanks to the instrumentals all across the tracks. Once the rumor got out that A Tribe Called Quest legend Q-Tip was an executive producer on the album, expectations soared, as Tribe’s beats were among the most influential of all time and still slap to this day.
However, not every beat here is as killer as the next. The title track and “Belly of the Beast” could have used a better groove, and the percussion on these songs are just too sparse or quiet for the beats to fully flourish. And while no song here has an instrumental that is purely uninteresting, there are a few beats here that do not complement Brown’s style as well as they could.
“Combat” and “Negro Spiritual” are both good instrumentals, but they resemble A Tribe Called Quest’s trademark production so closely that Brown’s fingerprint appears dimmed. Not to imply that the songwriting was average or that Brown doesn’t spit serious flames on these songs, but so many songs call back to traditional hip-hop sounds that aren’t as standout.
Brown has carved a niche that is so astronomically weird and decadent that anything less feels cheapened in a way. From a fan’s perspective, there aren’t as many satisfying moments throughout this album, but the instrumentals are still well-assembled, textured and fun. JPEGMAFIA’s beat on the track “3 Tearz” thumps and bumps in a very odd way, and Run the Jewels contribute two solid, vaguely political verses that add a nice touch to the song’s progression. It’s a collaboration of fireworks that should have been present on more of the songs on this album.
Occasionally, uknowhatimsayin¿ isn’t as riveting as we have known Danny Brown to be, but it’s still an album worth praising and an enjoyable installment in his catalogue. The track list presents a more subdued, less experimental version of Brown that still contains a plethora of awesome verses, sharp hooks and colorful instrumentals. It feels more like a victory lap than a bold artistic gut-punch, but that’s OK. Danny Brown is back, and rap needed another solid project from its most capricious character.