uknowhatimsayin¿ – Danny Brown
Released 10/04/2019 – Warp Records
Genres: Boom Bap/Abstract Hip Hop/”Stand Up Comedy Album”
For years, Danny Brown has been one of the most unique voices in hip-hop, both figuratively and literally. His last record, 2016’s “Atrocity Exhibition,” is one of the premier projects not only of this decade, but of hip-hop at large. It was an ambitious album, a deep dive into the dismal period Brown spent living off drugs. He flowed manically on that record—thriving over industrial instrumentals no other rapper could fathom. It was cerebral, it was abstract, it was hedonistic. It also posed a challenge for Brown: How the hell would he follow something like that up?
For his new album “uknowhatimsayin¿,” Brown chose to look further into the past. He pulled A Tribe Called Quest founder and oldhead idol Q-Tip on as his executive producer, and the result is a strain of boastful boom bap that could make Biggie blush.
A lot of people are going to be upset with this departure, especially if they expected a sequel to “Atrocity Exhibition.” This album doesn’t have a cohesive concept that pulls every track together into a perfect package. My first listen didn’t leave me with my jaw on the floor the way his last record did. But what this record does deliver is 33-and-a-half minutes of the most fun music Brown has released this decade.
The opener, “Change Up,” is exactly what the title suggests. It’s one of the darker tracks on the project, but compared to the suicidal lows of Brown’s previous material, it shows a clear progression. It’s also one of the few songs on this project produced by Paul White, who led the production of his last record. The track is lackluster as far as album openers go, but it does its job of setting the record’s tone and bridging the gap between “Atrocity Exhibition” and these new cuts.
“Theme Song” is where the comedy and the litany of classic rap references that carry this project start to come alive. It’s still one of the least interesting moments on the record, but I enjoy it more than the opener. The A$AP Ferg ad-libs are a nice touch, and Brown delivers some great bars. I especially like the way the “got a little richer” line in the hook plays with the “Listen Little Richard” line that starts the second verse.
The album’s third track, its lead single, is where it begins firing on all cylinders. “Dirty Laundry” features some really inventive production from Q-Tip, along with some of the most vital verses Brown can muster. The song’s title is a play on airing his “dirty laundry,” bragging about his sexual encounters. This track didn’t truly click for me until I noticed how well every line played back to that central theme.
Whether he’s rapping about being “dirty” for a drug test, referencing the Bounty slogan while describing a woman’s fellatio skills, or quoting a Notorious B.I.G. line about throwing bleach in someone’s eyes, he always finds a way to tie it back to laundry. Even the production does this with breathing synthesizers at the start of the cut that sound like a washing machine spinning and some squeaky clean synths towards the end that sound like they’ve been lathered in soap. This song is a display of mastery by both Brown and Q-Tip and is easily my favorite on the record.
Even after coming down from this high point, the album does not disappoint. “3 Tearz” has another great verse from Brown and a solid, if not a little stale, Run the Jewels feature. El-P has a couple of great lines here, one referencing the nihilists from “The Big Lebowski” and another shouting out MF DOOM’s seminal second album. I really liked Killer Mike’s verse, especially the “fine dines with nines and dimes” bit, but the fact that he recycled his best bars in the feature from a track he released in 2012 makes me wonder if he didn’t phone it in just a bit.
“Belly of the Beast” features Danny at his funniest, with a spacey, low-key instrumental that really gives his rapping room to shine. The Obongjayar feature here is an absolute delight, and so is his appearance on the title track. I especially love the way the “I don’t have skin, I just shine,” line in the chorus connects with the sample in “Best Life” and the lyrics of the track “Shine.”
I would love to gush about every track on “uknowhatimsayin¿.” Every reference to Wu-Tang or the Digital Underground, every creative allusion to slinging drugs or sleeping around merits a mention, but I’ll leave it at this. If you’re a classic hip-hop lover who wants to see the genre get weird, you won’t want to miss this one.