As a Detroit born-and-raised rapper, Danny Brown has a geographic legacy to uphold, hailing from the same city as J Dilla, Eminem, and Big Sean. At the same time, he has a powerful lyrical arsenal at his disposal – his young life is a common theme of Danny’s lyrics – for example, remarking on hardships and drug culture on his most popular single before the new release, “Grown Up”.
Age plays a role in the music, too – by the time Danny Brown released his debut album The Hybrid in 2010, he was already 29 years old, a shade older than his contemporaries in the industry. Brown’s seminal 2011 sophomore album XXX is named such, among other reasons, to denote the roman numerals of his age at the time, thirty. His age served his perspective well – a key facet of Brown’s image and sound is reflecting on the ‘young and dumb’ from a darker angle, pondering on the vicious cycles of excess as a main theme on XXX. Reflections continue on 2013’s Old, a third release which Brown stated in an XXL interview he intended to make “the Kid A to XXL’s OK Computer,” meaning to say through the Radiohead analogy that he looked at XXX as a major success, and hoped to bounce forward from it into another success, albeit not a copy-paste of his previous project. Old intentionally evokes the format of vinyl records with the two dividing tracks “Side A (Old)” and “Side B (Dope Song),” dividing the album thematically into a more deep-cut experimental hip-hop song list on Side A, and party-ready electronically tinged bangers on side B.
From that album, Brown took a 3-year hiatus and returned with a more heavy-handed dark record, Atrocity Exhibition. Sharing its name with a particularly harrowing Joy Division track, this album brought an even deeper and darker tonal and lyrical twist to the Danny Brown discography than anything that had come before it, alluding to paranoia, inner demons, and the horrible things that are so normalized with modern easily accessible media. After another 3-year hiatus, Danny Brown came forward with his new project, uknowhatimsayin¿.
Leading up to the album, Brown released 3 singles from the project. The first, “Dirty Laundry”, has Brown rapping an almost psychedelically twisted narrative of hedonism, sex, and the local laundromat over an equally psychedelic detail-heavy instrumental produced by the album’s lead producer Q-Tip. The track paints a strong picture for the aesthetic of the album to come – the lyrics are equal parts sober reflections and manic stream-of-consciousness rambling, over a dense and compelling backdrop. The second single, “Best Life”, reinforces and reinvents that aesthetic, with Brown taking a lower, more subdued inflection to deliver a laid back, cool track over another Q-Tip production, with short direct cuts and a strings sample akin to something from 2004’s legendary Madvillainy. The final single to release, coming only 3 days prior to the album’s release, is “3 Tearz”, featuring Run The Jewels. “3 Tearz” runs more playfully with the old-school hip hop energy on a decidedly retro track produced by JPEGMAFIA, with a cheeky lyric from El-P paying homage to MF DOOM in the second verse. After these tracks dropped, it became more and more apparent that Brown’s sound on the final project would be nostalgic and ever-changing, harkening back (as Brown does lyrically on “Dirty Laundry”) to The Hybrid, and certain sounds from XXX and Old.
The album opens with “Change Up”, a mellow song that seems to reflect on Brown’s own state of mind during his hiatus, as he raps about coming to terms with the passage of time and worrying about how long he has left. The second track “Theme Song” pairs a laid back dreamy (and again, old-school) instrumental with a more energized performance from Brown, dropping several lines of impassioned trash talk alongside some additional vocals from A$AP Ferg. “Dirty Laundry”, which continues to entice with further listens in context with the rest of the album. With the 2000’s-styled beats surrounding it, the detailed, rich backing track for this song stands out as decidedly different. “Belly of the Beast” features Danny with a limping, rolling flow as he raps about sexual depravity and perversion over a bizarre ambient instrumental track with interjecting lines from Nigerian-British rapper Obongjayar. The track “Savage Nomads”, lifting its name from a 1970’s NYC gang made famous by the documentary “80 Blocks from Tiffany’s” accounting the gang culture and social issues surrounding the South Bronx. Brown raps over the heavy drums and jangly lead tracks of the instrumental about equal parts flaunting wealth and addressing detractors with a few more trash-talk lines. “Best Life” addresses Danny’s young life on the streets in Detroit, discussing his role as a pawn in the “War on drugs… a chess game”, along with his own struggles with cocaine and his desire to move forward. The title track “uknowhatimsayin¿” features a repetitive mantra-like flow from Brown as every line is appended with “Know what I’m sayin’?”, whereas the chorus, again featuring Obongjayar, and the bridge break up the monotony with more rolling rhythmically inclined lines. The song is uncharacteristically optimistic and hopeful for a Danny Brown track, with Obongjayar finishing the choruses with “My guy, don’t stop now, keep going” and Brown elaborating on following one’s desires and dreams. “Negro Spiritual,” featuring JPEGMAFIA on the chorus, contains an instrumental that sits somewhere between the retro aesthetic of the album, with record scratching and a pumping drumline, and experimental hip hop with a frantic but subdued guitar line over top. Peggy’s chorus is catchy and strange at the same time, with a higher-pitched, almost wheezing inflection. “Shine,” featuring British artist Blood Orange, shows Danny at his most vulnerable or open emotionally on the album as of yet, lamenting on how street life isn’t all its cracked out to be; as Danny raps, “the statistics have shown / Everything that I known turned out to be lies / Found out when I was grown so I shared that light / On these dark undertones”, addressing how he sees his music as enlightening and potentially saving for a young person who hears the glorification of the life Brown once lived. Blood Orange’s choruses add yet another mantra-like element to the music, with the repetition and equally monotone and inspired delivery adding an uneasy feeling to the track. The final track of the album, “Combat”, opens with a vocal snippet from the aforementioned documentary “80 Blocks From Tiffany’s” where a young member of the Savage Nomads gang recounts all the weapons and bloodshed he’s seen in the streets of the Bronx. The production on this track is again reminiscent of a Madvillain instrumental, featuring dark bass and a soaring horn line under Brown rapping fairly traditionally, implementing a fairly straight and standard aggressive flow as he reminisces on his own life and how the street culture altered his life, rehashing his own cocaine problem in a handful of lines and briefly touching upon injustices of the court system against black men who find themselves wrapped up in gang activity, detailing how a sentence is a “one-way ticket to prison.” The album fades out with another vocal cut from “80 Blocks” over a psychedelic decaying instrumental segment.
Where the album lacks distinct lyrical cohesion or overarching heavy-handed morals, it makes up for on a track-by-track basis. This is by no means a concept album, where each track contributes to a larger image, greater than the sum of its parts, but that doesn’t make the album any more compelling for what it is. As a collection of snapshots and reflections from the life and mind of an accomplished rapper, for the ups and downs of all that entails, uknowhatimsayin¿ delivers a strong tonal aesthetic that ties the album together exactly as much as it needs to. On each track, Danny Brown, Q-Tip, and their curated features end up with an album that remains equal parts experimental hip hop and a love letter to rap tropes of the past 2 decades or so. In this way, uknowhatimsayin¿ is nostalgic in both production and lyrics as Brown raps at some of his most personal of the project near the end, evoking both a reverence for the hip hop greats and a look into Danny Brown’s own thoughts.