Album Review: Danny Brown – uknowhatimsayin¿

By Jackson Stein, Contributor
[Warp; 2019]
Rating: 8/10

Key tracks: “Savage Nomad”, “Best Life”, “Negro Spiritual”

Many artists claim to be ahead of the curve; Danny Brown is one of the few who truly is.

The Detroit oddball didn’t start turning heads until the release of his 2011 mixtape, XXX, which was released four years into his music career. Danny was 30 years old when the rap landscape finally decided to embrace his wild, raunchy, reckless lyrics and reserve a seat for him as one of abstract hip-hop’s sharpest voices (hence the title). He arose as a figure too unorthodox and forward-thinking for his time, continuously pushing the envelope and asserting himself as one of the most inventive rappers of the decade.

Now, as Danny approaches 40, he seems to have arrived at a point of midlife introspection. Trimming his mop-like hair and filling his legendary tooth gap, Danny quickly transitioned from an immature party monster into the coolest camp counselor imaginable. Despite presenting an unexpectedly mature artist, uknowhatimsaying¿ thankfully upholds the exceptionally skilled, expressive and clever Danny Brown that we all know and love.

Read more: Album Review: JPEGMAFIA – All My Heroes Are Cornballs

Following 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition is no easy task. Easily Danny’s darkest and most challenging album yet, it’s hard to imagine a future project that tops the lyrical and instrumental extremities that saturate its every second. Danny’s ability to blend strange beats with lyrical cries for help that deal in themes of trauma, violence and survival cement Atrocity Exhibition as one of the greatest hip-hop records of the decade. After such a fantastically complete record, fans were left feeling equally skeptical and ravenous for what was to come. 

Standing at just 34 minutes, uknowhatimsaying¿ is one of Danny Brown’s shortest and most relaxed projects to date. Lacking a concept or major theme that defined wilder albums, uknowhatimsaying¿ showcases Danny’s ability to craft astonishing grooves that sound like an update on old school rap. However, Danny certainly didn’t lack help. uknowhatimsaying¿ features phenomenal executive production from Q-Tip, the trailblazing producer and member of A Tribe Called Quest.

Working with Tip, Danny sounds more assured than ever. He delivers some of the best quotes of his career and presents a rare, optimistic sentiment to many tracks. “‘Cause ain’t no next life / so now I’m tryna live my best life,” Danny carols in the blissful “Best Life”. Embracing his new life path, Danny struts alongside tight string samples that complement his forward-looking lyrics. It’s the kind of song that can stick a smile to anyone’s face. The opening track, “Change Up”, radiates a similar sense of hope and features unusually atmospheric and grooveless instrumentals for a Danny Brown song. Despite being the weakest song of the album, “Change Up” is a nice tone-setter for the most sophisticated record in Danny’s discography.

The second track, “Theme Song”, features brutally frank lyrics that are supported by a mystical, spacey instrumental. Although Danny’s blunt advice for and sour criticism of some of today’s young rappers feels a bit nastier than necessary, the song is made great by the haunting, looped vocal sample that crawls throughout its vacant instrumental. Similarly, the title track’s groovy instrumental saves itself from Danny’s overly-preachy lyrics. This song, as well as “Belly of the Beast”, features Nigerian-born singer Obongjayar, whose smoky vocals add a much-needed depth of soul to both tracks.

The first of three teaser tracks, “Dirty Laundry” is one of the most well-formulated tracks on the album. The squeaky synths and buzzing choral vocals sound like the soundtrack to the greatest video game never made. Incorporating dark experiences from his past and working in metaphors of dirtiness, the track is one of Danny’s best.

“3 Tearz” is one of the most aggressive tracks on the album and features vicious verses from Run the JewelsEl-P and Killer Mike. Produced by JPEGMAFIA, the track has a snapping snare beat that further heightens its rebellious attitude. Even though Killer Mike delivers one of the angriest bars of the album, there’s no song that outperforms the perfect blend of flashiness and brutality on the song “Savage Nomad”. Swimming in a fat, classic, low-fi beat, Danny delivers some of the album’s best quotes, including “I ignore a whore like an email from LinkedIn.”

The song “Negro Spiritual”, featuring JPEGMAFIA, has the tightest and busiest beat of the entire album. Delivering an expressive, raspy hook, Peggy reaffirms that he is one of the most dynamic artists working today and continues to showcase his seemingly endless talent. Sounding like a crazier version of his earliest projects, Danny’s rapping on this track is manic and is supported by its intense instrumentals. The wobbly, angular bass is undeniably courtesy of experimental jazz artist Thundercat, whose playing perfectly complements the intricate production from Flying Lotus.

As uknowhatimsaying¿ comes to a close, Danny delivers the dreariest song of the album, “Shine”, which features vocals from Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange. Though he may revel in the success and shine that he has built up, Danny reveals that he feels intensely vulnerable and paranoid that he could lose it all in an instant. The last song, “Combat”, with its fluttering looped horn sample and chunky beat, sounds closer to a Tribe song than any other track here. It’s soaked from head to toe in Q-Tip’s production and even features vocal contributions from him and collaborator and cousin, Consequence.

On uknowhatimsaying¿, Danny Brown closes out a decade of one-of-a-kind brilliance with a refreshingly easygoing album that will leave listeners hungry for more. It’s a great collection of tracks and shows an artist who’s more at peace with himself than he’s ever been. Trading challenging sonics for a joyful Danny Brown is an exchange I’m more than happy to make. You know what I’m saying?

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