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Album Review: uknowhatimsayin¿ by Danny Brown

In 2016, Danny Brown released Atrocity Exhibition to critical acclaim after switching over to Warp Records, home to ground-breaking artists like Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada. Drawing inspiration from rock bands like Joy Division and Talking Heads, Danny created a dark, manic masterpiece exploring his substance abuse over an odd soundscape from abrasive guitar riffs, to wild up-tempo keys. Three years later, he follows it up with a very different record in uknowhatimsayin¿.

Going into this album with similar expectations risks disappointment. The album is much more low-key, akin to Denzel Curry’s ZUU released earlier this year or Vince Staples FM! from 2018. Danny seemed to move on from the craziness of his earlier work as he fixed his front teeth and got a simpler haircut. He also hosted a comedy show on Viceland called Danny’s House, setting the tone as much more light-hearted.

Following up one of the decade’s best records is a difficult task, but with uknowhatimsayin¿, Danny delivers. Enlisting the legendary Q-Tip as the executive producer, the album gives us an insight into Danny’s improved mental state over its brief 33-minute run-time. This is unlike his previous work where he largely focused on what he was currently going through, be it excessive partying or spiralling depression. On uknowhatimsayin¿, Danny reflects on his past and looks to the future. The album is more accessible than his previous work due to the infectious, bouncy beats as well as Danny toning down his vocal performance from the usual harsh squeak to a more conversational flow throughout the album.

‘Change Up’ opens the album, where Danny contemplates whether pondering over the past is even worth it, in a mellow laid-back rap. Beautiful strings loop throughout ‘Theme Song’, as Danny cynically serves up advice to young rappers.

It is easy to forget Danny is nearing his 40s, but he fully embraces his status as an ‘old head’ on this album, paying homage to the golden age of hip hop, with references to Mobb Deep, Nas, Eric B. & Rakim, and the Wu-Tang Clan throughout the album.

Q-Tip blends his classic New York sound with Danny’s more erratic sound to brilliant effect on ‘Dirty Laundry’. The track features several double entendres to drug dealing and quite literally, laundry, as Danny raps about his past sexual escapades in a vulgar, humorous manner.

Rap duo Run The Jewels join Danny on ‘3 Tearz’ over a JPEGMAFIA beat which samples Yoko Ono. The three rappers pen powerful verses about accepting the past and its misfortunes, with Killer Mike’s verse being especially hard-hitting.

The album refuses to stick to a formula, featuring an array of off-the-wall sounds. ‘Belly Of The Beast’ incorporates a frightening vocal fade-in to psychedelic effect and features London-based Nigerian artist, Obongjayar. On the other hand, ‘Savage Nomad’ is perhaps the most similar to his traditional sound. Danny offers a frenzied, energetic verse over a majestic guitar loop, bragging about drug use as he claims that if, “this was the 70s, he’d be a savage nomad”, referring to a New York drug gang.

Over a soulful Q-Tip beat, Danny recounts his experiences as both a drug dealer and user, choosing to focus on trying to live his ‘Best Life’ as there “ain’t no next life”. It is on this track that Danny’s newfound sheer optimism shines through, clearly contrasting with the aggression of his previous work. The title track echoes these sentiments with a repetitive hook about persisting through life’s difficulties.

Danny switches up his flow several times on the upbeat, jazzy ‘Negro Spiritual’, produced by Flying Lotus and Thundercat. JPEGMAFIA also provides a strange vocal performance sounding like Pharrell. ‘Shine’ is another highlight as Danny resolves to get out of the mess he’s in before he “loses his mind” or “runs out of time”. Experimental group Standing On The Corner is involved in the production and Blood Orange offers a brilliant contribution, rapping over his own singing to riveting effect.

The outro, ‘Combat’, incorporates wailing horns and vocal clips from a 1979 documentary about gang violence into a classic Q-Tip boom-bap beat. Danny switches up his flow throughout the track and assesses the life he used to live, calling in Q-Tip and old Kanye collaborator, Consequence, to declare his past a “combat zone”.

Overall, this album is short and concise, but it suffers from a lack of overall themes when compared to his previous work. It is not as ambitious conceptually but Danny offers out clever verses over interesting production to make a fun, cohesive collection of tracks. It is great to hear Danny in a healthy state of mind. uknowhatimsayin¿ serves as another exemplary addition to his stellar discography and cements his place as one of the greatest rappers of the 2010s.

8/10

Tags: album review, Danny Brown, Experimental, hip hop, rap

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