Danny Brown is in a class of his own. The 38-year-old hip hop savant has consistently morphed the sound of rap into his own distorted image, with the help of his demonic punk sound and piercing high-pitched voice, for the last decade. The captivating quality of Brown is the fact that there is no musician quite like him. He’s not a pioneer, mainly because of how rare it is for an artist to sink to the hell-bent depths Brown’s music thrives in, but more of a hip hop vigilante. He thrives in the shadows, only revealing himself every couple of years to drop critically-acclaimed album after critically-acclaimed album.
2016’s “Atrocity Exhibition”, the Detroit emcee’s fourth studio album, is an auditory nightmare, and I mean that in the best way possible. The eerie sonics and stomach-churning production is the perfect backdrop for Brown’s pain-fueled lyrics and quirky boastfulness. It’s a challenging listen, but music isn’t always meant to make you feel comfortable, and Atrocity makes your skin crawl through every single second of it. The project confirmed that there’s no line Danny Brown isn’t willing to cross when pushing the boundaries of his music. You can’t place the rapper in a box, making each new album a unique journey into the unknown.
3 years later, on his new album “uknowwhatimsayin¿” Brown has seemingly woken up from this nightmare, evidenced immediately from the light guitar strums on the opening track “Change Up.” “They thought I was gone / back from the grave,” he spits, iconic helium voice gone, replaced by a serious tone as sharp as a razorblade. Normally, Danny is a whimsical personality, with bars that could spark laughter at a funeral home, but this project begins with the maturity of a man that recognizes the gravity of his situation. “Got me stressed out, situations look bleak / time’s running out, how my days turn to weeks?” He may be awake, but the nightmare continues.
Danny’s traditional over-the-top humor still shines through often on this project, with quotables that vary from hilariously wacky (“I can talk a cat off the back of a fish truck”) to utterly absurd (“The Henny got me wetter than whale piss / I die for this s*** like Elvis”). The best part of Brown’s lyrical content is, as he spills his guts about trauma and inner demons, he still finds a way to get his jokes off. The self-deprecating showman showcases this practice perfectly on album standout “Savage Nomad.” Who else could get away with housing bars like “No ice on my neck, but she love me for my charm,” and “Dealt with so much pain that I don’t even know what feeling is,” in the same verse?
Normally, Brown prefers to play the role of the loner, sparingly including high-profile acts on his album cuts, letting his own voice tell the story. But on “uknowwhatimsayin¿” the hip hop veteran enlists the help from a number of artists that share the same cutting edge vision and unusual sounds. ASAP Ferg’s adlibs echo throughout “Theme Song.” Run the Jewels lend an aggressive middle finger to the track “3 Tearz.” JPEGMAFIA appears over a wild bassline in “Negro Spiritual.” Even Blood Orange grants his dreamy vocals on “Shine.” Every feature is necessary to achieve the overarching vision, but none of them overwhelm it. Danny is still the star of the show, the ringleader that dictates where the listener is headed and when.
While Atrocity entranced listeners with moody soundscapes and an overwhelmingly depressing aura, “uknowhatimsayin¿” executive producer Q-Tip helps pull back the immersiveness to let Danny Brown’s laser-focused verses become the focal point. Each aspect of the production feels lush and warm, but with muted textures, so you can hear Danny loud and clear throughout. “I used to hate it when people were like, ‘I love Danny Brown, but I can’t understand what he’s saying half the time,” Brown said in the project’s editor notes on Apple Music. “Do you know what I’m saying now? I’m talking to you. This isn’t the Danny that parties and jumps around. No, this is the one that’s going to give you some game and teach you and train you.”
“Uknowhatimsayin¿” is a brief rebirth for Brown after a three-year-long hiatus, clocking in at only 34 minutes, but there’s a beauty in the brevity. Danny isn’t pulling any gimmicks, not wasting a single bar or breath. The samples and loops, assisted by Q-Tip and Paul White, are full of life, from the shimmering violin on “Theme Song” to the goosebumps-inducing gasping sounds on “Belly of the Beast.” This is Danny Brown at his most refined and mature, weaving his infectious sense of humor with tales of inner turmoil and pain, to create an authentic piece of music and one of the best records of the year.