For those unaware of Detroit rapper Danny Brown, who has just returned after a three-year hiatus with a new album called uknowhatimsayin¿, I would like to give a brief test. Play five seconds of his song “Downward Spiral,” the opener to his 2016 album Atrocity Exhibition. I predict you will either close the tab immediately, or be sickly fascinated. The double punch of the dark, looming instrumental and Danny’s yelpy delivery will either immediately turn you off or pull you in. Or better yet, do the same test with his song “Ain’t it Funny,” probably one of the wildest songs I’ve ever heard, complete with harrowing, blaring and booming noises, Danny’s characteristic screech and dark, disturbing couplets like “Staring in the devil’s face/ But you can’t stop laughing” and “Nose bleeds on red carpets/ But it just blends in.” The stuff like that is what made Atrocity Exhibition such a transfixing listen and led to its status as a modern classic, setting the bar high for whatever Danny would follow it up with. But with that album being such a bold and experimental departure from the sounds Danny was toying with on his 2013 record Old, it at once feels disappointing and reassuring that he became more comfortable on his latest release uknowhatimsayin¿, and instead of his new album having a strong concept tying everything together like Exhibition did, the new record is mostly just a collection of songs. However, that isn’t to underplay the power of the songs here, because the outcome of Danny retreating more into his comfort zone is probably his most plainly enjoyable music yet, yielding some pretty amazing songs as well.
Back in April, Danny Brown announced that his upcoming album would be produced by Q-Tip of the legendary A Tribe Called Quest, and his beat-making and executive production elevate the record to another level entirely. The singles “Best Life” and “Dirty Laundry,” both produced by Q-Tip, sound amazing, and it looks to me that the producer and rapper compliment each other perfectly. The production work, handled also by Atrocity Exhibition producer Paul White and with production credits to JPEGMAFIA and Flying Lotus, can also unfortunately sometimes outshine the actual vocalists. I’ve always liked Run the Jewels, but Killer Mike’s feature on the song “3 Tearz” doesn’t live up to the hype set by the insane JPEGMAFIA instrumental and Danny Brown and Mike’s partner El-P’s verses. uknowhatimsayin¿ finds another dud in the inane title track, mostly consisting of Danny repeating the phrase “Know what I’m sayin?” until brain death occurs. There may be a few misses in the 11-song tracklist, but the record mostly hits. “Belly of the Beast” has a great hook by Obongjayar and some of Danny’s wittiest wordplay (“I’m anemic with the ink, you a Stevie Wonder blink”) and the Flylo-produced “Negro Spiritual” has a dry-throated JPEGMAFIA chorus and amazing guitar and bass work done by Thundercat. But really, the single “Best Life” is probably the best song on the record, the one that explains how far Danny has toned himself down over the past few years. “Cause ain’t no next life, so now I’m tryna live my best life” mostly explains the transition from the wild, drug-addicted, toothless monster we knew on Atrocity Exhibitions and past releases to the more optimistic and cleaned-up version of Danny Brown we see now. I would hesitate to call uknowhatimsayin¿ a maturation as many critics have called it, because Danny is still his funny, profane self here. Here, he just sounds more reined in, and definitely more focused than before. And although his new record may just be a collection of really great songs, it didn’t need a grand concept to work- it just needed to be good. And by that criterion, it succeeds. — CHARLIE COLAN