Danny Brown's 'uknowhatimsayin¿' Is a Classic Hip-Hop Record Without the Experimental Edge
Detroit rapper Danny Brown's uknowhatimsayin¿ is a spare, principled record that's mostly about hard beats and harder bars.
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.
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