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Danny Brown – uknowwhatimsayin¿ Review

October 10, 2019 | Posted by David Hayter
Danny Brown - uknowwhatimsayin
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Danny Brown – uknowwhatimsayin¿ Review  

Danny Brown is a unicorn. He might seem perfectly ordinary on paper – dealt drugs (check), raised in derelict Detroit (check), child of divorce (check) – all the hallmarks of a modern rag-to-riches rapper are in place, but across four brilliant albums Brown has bucked against convention. He is an idiosyncratic tsunami of eccentricity and raw unhinged charisma. His music has always been defiantly avant garde and completely unrestrained by genre, he’s like an head trip to listen to. Brown strides through psychedelic fantasies and algorithmic modernity into atonal screaming and classic 80s boom-bap knowledge spitting without a second thought – for Brown, versatility less is a useful trait, a more a raison d’etre.

Wrongfooting expectation is the name of the game. Brown can take the most straightforward of narratives about poverty and deliver it like Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker high on crack cocaine holding up a pensioner for her pocket chain. The arrangements are equally insane – as likely to melt away as they are to loop. In fact, Brown’s best beats often involve grotesquely mutilated sonics. At times it is as if the Detroit rapper has hurled a bucket of technicolored battery acid on Pusha-T’s best low key beats. What’s remarkable is that this ingenious, unpredictable and cracked out heir to Andre 3000 has little to no mainstream buzz. He’s more likely to be spotted on Pitchfork’s homepage than being discussed on Everyday Struggle.

XXX, Old and Atrocity Exhibition should have cemented Danny Brown as, not only the voice of a destitute generation, but as an artist as willing to dive headlong into modernity as Kanye West or JPEGMAFIA (who features here). Of course they did nothing of sort and Brown remains an acquired taste. This introduction is not meant to read as a sob story. Brown has earned plenty of respect and his life is a genuine success story, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that uknowhatimsayin¿ might just represent Brown’s attempt to calm things down and fit in with his peers.

Don’t worry, his latest album is still utterly bonkers in the best ways and these beats are unlikely to be imitated on the Billboard Chart anytime soon. Still, there is a sense that Danny Brown is reining his schizophrenic extremes in the name of something smoother, more palatable and more communal. The narratives, beats and tones are full of surprises, but Brown tends to stick to a steady tempo as he serves up a strict diet of locked-on-the-rhythm bars.

There is no explosion of Waka Flocka inspired insanity in form of Old’s “Dip” and nothing as ear drum splittingly strange as either “Ain’t It Funny” or the dark hymnal “Lost”. Instead, uknowhatimsayin¿‘s creativity is more incremental and understated. Brown is still weird and wild-eyed, but he’s not interested in broadcasting it overtly. His ingenuity now expresses itself in the delicate dance of Radiohead-ish textures and dark jazz grooves arranged by Flying Lotus on the hypnotic “Negro Spiritual”. The track itself is a complete red herring. When it was announced that JPEGMAFIA would feature alongside Danny Brown, insanity was the expectation. Instead, JPEG sings a sultry and controlled chorus while Brown deftly relays his radical transition from the gutter to the stars (“Came a long way from not havin’ a pot to piss in/Season tickets for the Pistons, cut crack on dishes”).

“Shine” continues the understated aesthetic. It’s so slippery, spectral and serene, it seduces the listener on the sly. Blood Orange’s guest vocal seems to slip between the phases, beckoning us down the rabbit hole as Brown evolves from early jokes (“Street life contra, ain’t no cheat code”) to reflect on how a world that encourages young black men to do anything they can to survive can snatch everything they’ve earned away in a second (“In a system that’s designed, one strike, take it all”). Brown doesn’t excuse bad behaviour, although he recognises the circumstances and the cultural assumptions that justify, encourage and reward it. The song’s most powerful moments comes as Brown points out that this ruthless dog-eat-dog approach to life leaves “you feelin’ all alone/But who can you turn to when things go wrong?” – Hustling, it would seem, is a lonely, rather than glamorous life.

If the album ends with beautifully composed reflections on a coldblooded culture, then its starts with Brown, head down, striding through the streets he clearly mistrusts. “Change Up” is an ode to being unbroken, but still trapped in a street mentality (“Lost in the streets, found on the beat/Still keep a clip, asked, and got it for cheap”) while the slippery “Theme Song” might appear tranquil, it’s actually a broadside at “bitch-ass niggas”. Being a Danny Brown track, this takedown takes aim at deadbeat dads and money grabbing pastors as well as craven wannabe hardmen with “ants in their pants”.

Both tracks are worthy and enjoyable openers, but they absolutely pale in comparison to “Dirty Laundry”. Brown is the undisputed king of using his screwy vocal to jar and buck against the arrangement. He feels totally at odds with his surroundings, but if you pay attention, his rhymes are absolutely locked on the rhythm. “Dirty Laundry” is a prime example: he sounds deranged and loose, as if he’s ad-libbing the entire track. At one point in the narrative even Brown sounds legitimately surprised at what’s he’s saying (“Fuck a stripper for some change, actual change/Dime, penny, nickels, actual change”), but make no mistake, he is in complete control. This is Danny Brown at his absolute best. On a squeaky Q-Tip beat, the rapper overflows with charisma as he details a grotesque and absurd sexual history leading to an unforgettable punchline (which I won’t ruin here).

Elsewhere the sexual exploits are less exciting. “3 Tearz” is something of a disappointment. The Hybrid, Run The Jewels and JPEGMAFIA all on one track! It should be a conscious-cum-horror-rap dream, but it feels far too bleak and mean-spirited for a Danny Brown record. JPEG’s rusty carnival beat is hard and there’s no denying the incredible lyrical skills on display here (some of the rhymes are truly spellbinding), but the track is just so terse it stamps out all the joy and zaniness that elevates Brown above the standard aggro/grievance rap crowd.

Luckily, Brown follows “3 Tearz” with the strangest cut on the entire record, “Belly of the Beast”. Reviving a 2013 freestyle over a synthetic inhalation masquerading as a Paul White’s beat, Brown drops some of his wildest rhymes to date (“I ate so many shrimp I got iodine poisoning/Hoes on my dick ‘cause I look like Roy Orbison”). From then on in, we are off to the races with the equally insane stunting of “Savage Nomad” – one final outpouring off insanity, before the more considered second half of the LP takes hold.

The title track is a puzzler, it’s certainly intoxicating and encourages the listener to take stock of the unhinged extremes that have preceded it, but does it truly work as a stand-alone track? It’s hard to say. “uknowwhatimsayin” is both tender and effecting, but also completely meandering and somewhat disjointed. Still, as an introduction to the conscious rhymes of the closing suite, the title track just about does the trick. The wonderful three-punch combo of “Negro Spiritual” and “Shine” concludes with the delicious trumpet driven tones of “Combat”. Q-Tip takes the helm on production as Brown makes a strong case to be the true heir to A Tribe Called Quest’s crown. Brown runs down the consequences of living-and-dying by the streets (“tried to help, only hurt in the end/how you ‘posed to take care of your kids from the pen?”) before revealing the fate of those that break rank with their brothers:

It’s the life we chose, friends became foes/That nigga snitched on, everybody know/Some don’t know to stick to the code/Nobody to trust, that’s the way life goes

Danny Brown’s music might be full of craziness, joy and playful eccentricity, but never forget that he has always been writing a tragedy. The mentality of the streets, the reality of poverty and the feeling that nothing ever really changes haunts his wild-eyed rhymes and the dark acidic jazz of these escapist jams.

uknowhatimsayin¿ may well be weaker than Atrocity Exhibition, Old and XXX respectively, but is still a wilfully experimental exploration of a life lived on the extremes of both poverty and morality. There is humor, strength and plenty of rebellious spirit to be enjoyed, but Brown is sure to never lose sight of sorrow, even as psychedelics melt the world around him and warp his memory.

The final score: review Good
The 411
Danny Brown is an expert in survival and his insanely idiosyncratic and constantly mutating music is testament to his ability to adapt. uknowhatimsayin¿ might be not be as thrilling or diverse as his last three records, but it is still chocked full of both daffy and depressing tales from the streets of Detroit spat over some of the most beautiful deranged beats in modern hip hop. Even as he mellows out, Danny Brown is still one crazy cat who effortlessly stands out from the mainstream hip hop crowd.

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Danny Brown, David Hayter