Detroit, Michigan boasts one of the richest musical histories in not only the Midwest but all of the United States. Few musical periods stack up to the dominance of Motown Records in the 1960s and early ’70s, and the eruption of techno in the 1980s remains a key turning point in the landscape of Western music at large. The Motor City’s underground hip-hop scene, while perhaps not as internationally renown, is no slouch when it comes to churning out unique artists with unmistakable sounds.
Since a young Marshall Mathers first blew up in the late 1990s, the torch has been carried by the likes of the late J Dilla, Royce Da 5’9″, Black Milk, Dej Loaf, Quelle Chris and others, but since Eminem, no Detroit rapper has stood out within the world of hip-hop quite like Danny Brown. Now 38-years old and with over a decade in the industry, Brown’s distinct personality and consistently stellar output have made him a champion of the underground. While he’s cultivated a tremendously dedicated fan base and achieved massive critical acclaim, his journey has seldom been without hardship.
Brown’s discography boasts some of the most progressive and colorful rap albums ever laid to wax. From the dark and suicidal excesses of his breakthrough XXX to the electronic-infused drug suites that fueled Old to the carnival of insanity that was Atrocity Exhibition, his work, while artistically compelling, has always been driven by an unnerving sense of dejection, to the point his own well being was a major topic of concern.
Nearly three years after his last full length record, Brown resurfaced with a fresh new look and positive news. His signature tooth-gap was no more, his hair was cut relatively short and he was finally prepared to release his latest creations into the world: one, a brand new comedy show entitled Danny’s House, which aired on VICE this past summer; the other, uknowhatimsayin¿, his long-awaited fifth studio album.
Almost out of necessity, uknowhatimsayin¿ is less jarring and abrasive than Brown’s previous work. Instead of drowning in the perils of drug addiction and self-abuse, he recalibrates his writing to focus on comical storytelling and his deep affinity for hip-hop’s roots, all while remaining technically sharp and keen on quality humor. From checking clout-chasers to professing his own commitment to the game, Brown’s latest is a celebration of longevity, artistic significance and affirms his allegiance to the craft of being a dynamic rapper.
The music on uknowhatimsayin¿ sports a variety of classic rap adendums, notably on the psychedelic and uplifting “Best Life,” the trunk-knocking and Run the Jewels-assisted “3 Tearz” and the cypher-esque guitar beat of “Savage Nomad.” Though the instrumentals are dialed back, they are every bit as eccentric as one might hope, given the production lineup of familiar collaborator Paul White, JPEGMAFIA, Flying Lotus and Q-Tip, who also assumed duties of executive producing the entire record.
These grimy flavors also appear on the eerie “Theme Song” and on “Negro Spiritual,” a track on which Brown trades his typically sparse and invasive flow for rapid-fire multi-syllabic punchlines over schizophrenic percussion laid down by Thundercat and Flying Lotus. It’s tracks like these that punctuate Brown’s bar-for-bar skills and remind listeners just how inventive he is as a vocalist.
Brown has long drawn attention for his trademark style, characterized by yelpy theatrics and occasionally, a deeper and huskier contemplative tone. When broken down to the bare fundamentals, Brown’s raps remain some of the most fun and hilarious to sing along to. His verses are littered with absurd punchlines, like “I’m anemic with the ink / you a Stevie Wonder blink / I take a piss in the same sink you wash dishes with,” or “I eat so many shrimp I got iodine poison / Hoes on my dick ’cause I look like Roy Orbison,” both of which show up on the acid-warped “Belly of The Beast,” a Paul White special.
The album closer “Combat” also boasts some of the record’s most replayable lines, especially “Kush stankin’ like it broke the wind” and “The Henny got me wetter than whale piss / I’d die for this shit like Elvis.” What makes Brown’s seemingly straightforward one-liners so compelling is how he’s able to meld comedic appeal with extreme sincerity. On one level, his delivery is bred for generating laughs, but there is zero doubt in the average fan’s mind that Danny Brown would give his life for hip-hop. His bars convey serious emotional conviction, simultaneously showing his uncanny ability to ride any beat in the universe.
As always with Brown’s multi-layered writing, his over-the-top antics come paired with great self-awareness. He understands just how fragile life in rap can be, something that carries extra weight knowing his turbulent track record. uknowhatimsayin¿ is less of a shock than XXX or Atrocity Exhibition, but it’s executed with the same boldness and attention to detail that helped make Danny Brown one of this decade’s best and most unique rappers. He remains the unicorn of modern rap, his status cemented as one of the pioneers of this generation’s experimental hip-hop wave.