Music Reviews

Danny Brown Turns a New Corner on UKNOWHATIMSAYIN¿

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Genre: Abstract Hip Hop

Favorite Tracks: “Dirty Laundry,” “Belly of the Beast”

Danny Brown has always been an enigma as far as the hip hop community has been concerned. You can’t tie him to the ‘90s-born monuments like Jay-Z or early 50 Cent, nor would he be lumped in with amorphous sounds of “new hip hop” coming out of the SoundCloud sphere. His (previously) chip-toothed, near-manic smile was merely the welcome mat to an individual whose repertoire of grunts, laughs, and shoutouts are so prolific they once merited the creation of a Danny Brown soundboard. His latest release, UKNOWHATIMSAYIN¿, is his mellowest and most deftly guided release, but also the hardest to pin down in the context of his discography this decade; whereas his previous three albums now feel like a trilogy in extremely personal, creative thought, it leaves UKNOWHATIMSAYIN¿ adrift in terms of where it belongs in his larger canon.

Looking back since 2011, Brown’s become an artist who’s managed to show a degree of unique, personal exploration with each album release. XXX was very much a personal snapshot of a moment in time, perhaps the album closest to Brown’s roots as a lifelong Detroiter. The drugs, the hustling, the house-field-field landscape of Motor City’s deterioration, all at the forefront as he takes us down the blocks where he grew up. Brown concludes that album with some harsh self-realization that at 30 years old, very late in the rap game, he’s finally reached a level of fame he thought he might never make, although the price of said fame led to trouble with the law, drug addiction, and the still very real possibility that either of those things might get the best of him. That’s a theme he picked up on OLD: a love letter to the A and B sides of a vinyl, a melding of his classical adherence to the old school with his oceanic depth of knowledge to culture outside what’s considered conventional hip hop. And then ATROCITY EXHIBITION, which came out of left-field as Brown drew upon so many musical influences outside hip hop that there is some wonder as to how it became as lauded as it is. A Willy Wonka ferry boat ride, ATROCITY EXHIBITION listens like a hyperbolic mental breakdown of someone who’s not just rapping to you about the personal tragedies and demons of the past (and present), but dragging the audience down with him so they can share in his own personal hell.

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So where does that leave us years removed from his last release? UKNOWHATIMSAYIN¿ is his first record in nearly a decade that doesn’t feel so earnestly about him. He’s referred to it as his stand-up comedy album, which makes sense in a way; executive producer Q-Tip’s penchant for jazz-adjacent beats and Brown’s lyrical realm of obscurity come together in very cohesive ways—unlike his last series of albums, there is no moment where he descends to rock bottom and lurches forward at the audience, telling them how much pain there can be in this world. Here he’s fully comfortable in a more toned-back voice and seems to be able to effortlessly move between powerful, guttural bangers, and minimal soundscapes where his voice alone serves as the chief cadence.

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“Change Up” is almost an assurance to his listeners that as he grows in his rapping, he’ll never compromise on where he came from and who he is. “Dirty Laundry,” “Belly of the Beast,” and “Savage Nomad” read as old school Danny at his punchlined best. But it’s in the latter third of the album that we get newer, more upbeat sounds from him—a side we’ve never seen. “Best Life” finds Danny reflecting on moving into drug dealing in his youth but cross-referencing it with where he’s at now, and despite the song title being a grossly overused hashtag by folks who follow up Sunday morning yoga with avocado toast, Brown’s use of it comes with an earnest degree of sincerity. There’s an understanding that those bad decisions helped shape who he has become but he’s refused to let that life keep ahold of him. Immediately following is the title track “uknowwhatimsayin¿,” which reads like a laundry list of one-off snippets of wisdom that Brown might share with his younger self, growing up as they come into their own.

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More than anything, UKNOWHATIMSAYIN¿ may represent Brown hitting a new stride and creative avenue in his career. In talking about the release, Brown’s admitted that in working with Q-Tip he garnered a “whole new outlook on music” and was unable to go back to how he was before. With his trademark chipped tooth gone, his own show on Viceland, and a hip hop legend behind the helm of this latest release, the Brown’s opportunities for future creative pursuits look as promising as ever.

Nathaniel Dueber
The vast majority of people solely refer to him as Dueber. Like Sting. Or Madonna. But not Bono. Might delete later.

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