Music

Danny Brown's 'uknowhatimsayin¿' Is a Classic Hip-Hop Record Without the Experimental Edge

Photo: Courtesy of Warp Records

Detroit rapper Danny Brown's uknowhatimsayin¿ is a spare, principled record that's mostly about hard beats and harder bars.

uknowhatimsayin¿
Danny Brown

Warp

4 October 2019


Danny Brown - Dirty Laundry

uknowhatimsayin¿ fits the profile of a classic rap album, but this far into Danny Brown's run, it feels relatively minor. That's more to Brown's credit than to his fifth album's detriment. Since breaking out early this decade, he's been one of rap's most extra figures. He broke out as a bug-eyed, chip-toothed, emo-haired, duck-voiced Detroiter who rapped with appalling candidness about sex, drug addiction, and Detroit disenfranchisement. He's a "hipster at heart" and a purist's nightmare. Although, he's also the Platonic ideal of a rapper: a guy who loves to spit truth over whatever beats his cabal of producers throws his way. And because he leans towards indies like Fool's Gold and Warp Records rather than the rap-biz monsters like G-Unit that courted him early on, he's able to court the rap cognoscenti while maintaining the kind of creative control that endears him to the indie crowd. That's especially true when he names an album Atrocity Exhibition, after the Joy Division song, and fills it with beats that are more post-punk than anything else.

Here, he's "listening to Wu-Tang and rubbing on my balls". uknowhatimsayin¿ is a spare, principled record that's not about much besides hard beats and harder bars. It's not indie or experimental or crossover. It's 33 minutes long, his shortest by some margin. It's executive-produced by Q-Tip, as good a symbol of rap as brain food as you're likely to find. He still coaxes spit-takes out of his sex raps and wrings wrenching black comedy out of everyday Detroit poverty—just not as much.

And for the first time, rather than presenting himself as a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to die like a rock star, he's handing out life lessons. The violent drug-use scenarios we're familiar with from Brown albums are nearly absent. There's something exemplary about uknowhatimsayin¿, not in the sense that it's a sterling example of its form so much as that it presents itself as an example to be followed. It's the product of the unclouded mind of a man coming on 40 who's stared adversity in the face and prevailed.

uknowhatimsayin¿ opens with a few bars of cloudy guitar, the kind that evokes dusty roads and abandoned diners, before Brown's voice sets in, deep and serious. We've heard this inflection before, as Brown opened his third album Old with a warning not to look for that "old Danny Brown". It's his shut-up-and-listen voice. "Can't even think, got my mind wrapped up / But I still bite down, clench my teeth, knuckle up," he growls on "Square Up", as if he's physically doing that as he raps. No one comes to Brown for songs like this, and he knows it. He's telling us that if we want ludicrous sex similes and weird donkey honks, we'll have to wait.

Despite its single-mindedness, there's a strong case for uknowhatimsayin¿ as the album that best shows off Brown's multitudes. "Dirty Laundry" is nearly definitive as far as Brown tracks go. Its tale of depravity in a laundromat reflects both his Shock G-worthy sexual appetite and the way he casually slips heartbreaking details into cartoonish scenarios. His shout "actual change/quarters, dimes, nickels, actual change!" evokes both classic Brown lines like "stripper with a leaky roof, I'ma make it rain on her" and, oddly, David Bowie's "Let's Dance".

"Belly of the Beast" feels like Brown rattling off ridiculousness just to prove he can. "Combat" is your one-stop-shop for Dannyisms like "I could talk a cat off the back of a fish truck" or "the Henny got me wetter than whale piss". "3 Tearz" is basically a Run the Jewels track hosted by Danny Brown. It's as if he's telling us he doesn't care who raps on his album as long as they can. Even the inexplicable presence of Nigerian singer Obongjayar reminds us how he tends to share space with people like Purity Ring, who have nothing to do with his music.

What's missing from uknowhatimsayin¿ is any type of extreme. Listening to Danny Brown's music has always been an intense, jangled-nerves experience, like watching a slasher film while zonked out on edibles. That was in part because of the subject matter and partly because of his intensity. Here, we can lean our heads back and let the music expand our brains with its wisdom. uknowhatimsayin¿ isn't Danny Brown's most anything, but it's the least a lot of things: least intense, least avant-garde, least worried about the world around it. And when we're talking about an MC for whom more is better, it's easy to feel like we've lost something essential.

7
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

12 Essential Kate Bush Songs

While Kate Bush is a national treasure in the UK, American listeners don't know her as well. The following 12 songs capture her irrepressible spirit.

Music

Tatsuya Nakatani and Shane Parish Replace Form with Risk on 'Interactivity'

The more any notions of preconceived musicality are flicked to the curb, the more absorbing Tatsuya Nakatani and Shane Parish's Interactivity gets.

Music

Martin Green's Junkshop Yields the Gritty, Weird Story of Britpop Wannabes

Featuring a litany of otherwise-forgotten budget bin purchases, Martin Green's two-disc overview of coulda-been Britpop contenders knows little of genre confines, making for a fun historical detour if nothing else.

Reviews

Haux Compellingly Explores Pain via 'Violence in a Quiet Mind'

By returning to defined moments of pain and struggle, Haux cultivates breathtaking music built on quiet, albeit intense, anguish.

Reviews

'Stratoplay' Revels in the Delicious New Wave of the Revillos

Cherry Red Records' six-disc Revillos compilation, Stratoplay, successfully charts the convoluted history of Scottish new wave sensations.

Reviews

Rising Young Jazz Pianist Micah Thomas Debuts with 'Tide'

Micah Thomas' Tide is the debut of a young jazz pianist who is comfortable and fluent in a "new mainstream": abstraction as well as tonality, freedom as well as technical complexity.

Music

Why Australia's Alice Ivy Doesn't Want to Sleep

Alice Ivy walks a fine line between chillwave cool and Big Beat freakouts, and her 2018 debut record was an electropop wonder. Now, in the middle of a pandemic, she tries to keep the good vibes going with a new record decked out in endless collaborations.

Books

Five Women Who Fought the Patriarchy

Whether one chooses to read Square Haunting for the sketches of the five fascinating women, or to understand how misogyny and patriarchy constricted intellectual and public life in the period, Francesca Wade's book is a superb achievement.

Film

Director Denis Côté on Making Film Fearlessly

In this interview with PopMatters, director Denis Côté recalls 2010's Curling (now on Blu-Ray) discusses film as a "creative experiment in time", and making films for an audience excited by the idea of filling in playful narrative gaps.

Music

Learning to Take a Picture: An Interview With Inara George

Inara George is unafraid to explore life's more difficult and tender moments. Discussion of her latest music, The Youth of Angst, leads to stories of working with Van Dyke Parks and getting David Lee Roth's musical approval.

Music

Country Westerns Bask in an Unparalleled Sound and Energy on Their Debut

Country Westerns are intent on rejecting assumptions about a band from Nashville while basking in an unparalleled sound and energy.

Film

Rediscovering Japanese Director Tomu Uchida

A world-class filmmaker of diverse styles, we take a look at Tomu Uchida's very different Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji and The Mad Fox.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.