‘uknowhatimsayin¿’ sees Danny Brown do the unthinkable: overcome his demons
Wild, shrill and inventive, Danny Brown has been one of the most exciting voices in hip-hop since the beginning of his career in 2010 with his first album. Since then, his projects have slowly become more conceptual and introspective, leading to the creation of some truly fascinating music.
A big part of what makes Danny Brown so interesting is the seemingly separate two halves of his persona: his yelping, high-pitched delivery has always conjured images of “crackhead screaming on the subway,” while his lyrics have been smart, inward-looking examinations of his own demons.
So what happens to his signature sound when it sounds like he’s finally getting over his own demons? That’s where we see Brown on “uknowhatimsayin¿,” his fifth record released late last week.
The most interesting thing is that it sort of feels like Brown is finally okay. This record is far more subdued than his previous work, more focused. It’s obvious from the beginning: while his previous record, the stunning “Atrocity Exhibition,” began with Brown’s trademark manic, anxiety-induced yelping, “uknowhatimsayin¿” begins far more subtly. Brown raps lower in his vocal register than he normally does on the appropriately titled “Change Up,” the album’s opening track.
It’s a “change” that Brown maintains throughout the record. For once, he no longer sounds like all of his raps are coming from inside the throes of a panic attack. Instead, they sound like they’re coming from the moments of clarity that come after the panic attack lets loose on its grip.
But besides the clearer focus that comes out of Brown’s comparatively more laid-back rapping, this album sees massive benefits from the executive production of A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, who oversaw the recording process and even produced a few of the tracks himself.
Thanks to Q-Tip’s oversight, “uknowhatimsayin¿” has a more classic, old school hip-hop feel, with boom-bap inspired production that stands in stark contrast to the Joy Division and Talking Heads inspired production on “Atrocity Exhibition.” With sample-heavy beats, the production styling is some of the most traditional that Brown has rapped over.
But, they’re still left of center, because of course they are. One of the most off-kilter beats on the album comes on the song “3 Tearz,” which is essentially a dream culmination for rap nerds like me. The lurching, stuttering beat was produced by rising star JPEGMAFIA and features vocals from both El-P and Killer Mike from Run the Jewels.
The three rappers have an incredible amount of chemistry together, each playing well off each other. Brown’s conversational, hectic tone, El-P’s laid-back brashness and Mike’s always intense political nature combine wonderfully, to the point I’m hoping for more Danny Brown/Run the Jewels collaborations in the future.
Later, JPEGMAFIA takes up vocals on the chorus of “Negro Spiritual,” this time with a track produced by Flying Lotus and Thundercat. The pair add a frenetic, jazzy energy to Brown’s and JPEGMAFIA’s vocals, leading to one of the catchiest, most swinging moments on the record.
Truly, though, it’s hard to pick standout moments. The record is so tightly focused that it would be easy to say all of the songs are among the best on the record, and when the record clocks in at just longer than 30 minutes, it encourages the listener to go back and relive it all again.
I wouldn’t say this is Brown’s most engaging work; that title belongs to “Atrocity Exhibition,” an album that I hold as not only his masterpiece but one of the finest records of this decade. But while “uknowhatimsayin¿” might not be as endlessly fascinating, it gets bonus points for being far more accessible. The highs might not be as high, but you also don’t need to work as hard to get to them, so it makes for a fun trip.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan
Artist: Danny Brown
Best Tracks: ‘3 Tearz,’ ‘Negro Spiritual,’ ‘Combat’