Premature Evaluation: Danny Brown uknowhatimsayin¿
The 1979 cult documentary 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s is an image of a dark place at a crucial cultural point. The movie is about the kids in the bombed-out wasteland of the South Bronx — the gangs like the Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads, people who looked like The Warriors but in real life. This was the early days of hip-hop, and the gang truce shown in the movie helped establish the conditions needed for the music’s eventual spread. But 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s isn’t a movie about music. Music doesn’t even figure into it. It’s a movie about kids trying to survive in a hostile world.
There’s a scene in 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s that everyone who has seen the movie remembers. A teenage kid excitedly lists off all the exotic weaponry he’s seen in his neighborhood: “I’ve seen fuckin’ Thompsons. A damn Thompson! I’ve seen it! I’ve seen hand grenades! I’ve seen damn beer-can bazookas getting made. That thing hit you, just the same as being hit with a gun!”
The last song on uknowhatimsayin¿, the new Danny Brown album, is called “Combat,” and it features that kid’s voice, buried deep in the mix. The rap legend Q-Tip, the album’s executive producer, made the “Combat” beat. It’s prime Q-Tip, exactly the kind of thing that the man might’ve made for a Tribe Called Quest 25 years ago: a murky acoustic bassline, a shuffling brush-stroked snare, a screaming jazz trumpet loop. It’s lovely.
Over that beat, Danny Brown, a man who has a voice that cuts through the air like a car alarm, talks about messy hedonism, cracking mordant jokes. Like: “Got more pills than the Olsen twins.” Or: “Henny got me wetter than whale piss/ Die for this shit like Elvis.” But Brown also reflects on his own past, on the desperate circumstances of his youth: “Used to chop grams on my grandma’s saucers.” Near the end of the song, Q-Tip himself shows up, talking about red tops and blue tops. (Consequence is in there, too.) But the last voice we hear on “Combat” — and on uknowhatimsayin¿ in toto — isn’t Danny Brown or Q-Tip. It’s that kid from 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s: “I’ve seen dynamite. I’ve seen all this. You’d be surprised, man. Pretty soon, they’re going to steal the damn atom bomb!”
That, in a nutshell, is how uknowhatimsayin¿ works. It’s a furiously talented rapper talking shit, telling stories, showing off. It’s an absolute rap legend, a man who has been shaping soundscapes longer than anyone in rap, helping to create a complex, layered sonic context for this shit-talk. It’s intense and oppressive and often funny, and it’s full of allusions to other things that you will feel smart if you recognize. If you’re just looking for some shit that you can nod your head to, uknowhatimsayin¿ will work just fine. But it’s also an album based in trauma. And in its own sly way, it attempts to reckon, again and again, with that trauma — the thing that connects the desperation of Danny Brown’s young life with the sometimes-joyless hedonism that he now talks about.
For his entire career, Danny Brown has been trying to process the things that he’s seen. On his 2010 breakout The Hybrid, the album that uknowhatimsayin¿ most recalls, Brown dug deep into Detroit’s tradition of hard, wordy rap music, excelling in that established lane while still flaunting his own impossible-to-hide weirdness. On XXX and Old, Brown got into bleary, overwhelming club-music sounds, playing a shit-talking but self-deprecating comedian while still remaining honest about his own demons. And on his last album, 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition, Brown let those demons into the forefront of his music. It’s a triumphant and festival-ready rap album, complete with a damn Kendrick Lamar guest-verse, but it’s about the most depressed and numbed that a triumphant and festival-ready rap album could ever be.
Brown was a fully-grown adult by the time he became famous, and his age has always set him apart from his peers. (That’s why he named one album XXX — among other things, it’s “30” in Roman numerals — and another Old.) But uknowhatimsayin¿ is the first album where Brown actually seems to accept his own age. Instead of energetically barking all over beats, he sinks into them, and he takes some of the screech out of his wounded-hyena voice. (That voice is still jarring. It’ll be jarring when Danny Brown is 80. But more than ever before, it nestles into tracks rather than dominating them.) In recruiting Q-Tip as the album’s executive producer, Brown hasn’t just teamed up with a hero from his youth. He’s joined forces with someone who knows how to create an immersive sonic environment.
Consider a song like “3 Tearz” — Danny Brown and Run The Jewels rapping over a JPEGMAFIA beat built out of a Yoko Ono sample. When “3 Tearz” first showed up on the uknowhatimsayin¿ tracklist, I was excited, but I was a little nervous, too. What would that even sound like? Would it be three guys yelling at me over a fucking air-raid siren? No, it turns out. It’s three sharp, funny middle-aged rappers tossing out punchlines over a warped, squelching lurch of a beat that’s funkier than you might’ve thought possible. Danny: “A demon on the hunt for a succubus.” El-P: “We believe in nothing, Lebowski, there’s no motive.” Mike: “I don’t really give a fuck about giving a fuck.” It’s fun!
Danny Brown — who, after all, just came out with his own absurdist-comedy talk show — gets plenty of chances to be funny on uknowhatimsayin¿. On “Belly Of The Beast: “I’m anemic with the ink/ You a Stevie Wonder blink/ I take a piss in the same sink you wash dishes with.” On “Negro Spiritual,” he’s out with a few girls: “Drunk driving in a rent-a-car/ ‘Bout to hit ‘em with my best shot like Pat Benatar.” On “Dirty Laundry,” he’s back to remembering his drug-dealing past: “Left a sack in my clothes/ Mama just did a load/ 8-ball in my jeans, fiends say it taste like soap.”
But think about all that. Here’s a man talking about the time he spent selling drugs as a child, and about getting into self-destructive shit even now that he has money and prestige and adulation. Even when he’s being funny, Danny Brown is bleak, cynical, traumatized. He sees pitfalls everywhere: “Now I’m in a world where they prey on the weak/ Stand-up niggas take shots to the knees.” He’s surprised he’s even still alive — “Not supposed to be here, dead like Weekend At Bernie’s” — and he’s not sure how to deal with it. His own stress directly ties into his own recklessness and drug use, and he knows it: “Smoking diesel to forget it all.” And sometimes it drags him down. The title track from uknowhatimsayin¿, probably its least inspired song, is the one where Brown just reels off folk-wisdom clichés about how hard life is.
But even that song works because it sounds cool. The whole album is full of cool sounds. Q-Tip himself only produces three of the album’s 11 tracks — one fewer than regular Danny Brown collaborator Paul White — but he’s the clear inspiration for all these heady, stumbling textures. All the tracks on uknowhatimsayin¿ are warm and lush and jazzy. They’re short, too; the whole album barely spans more than half an hour. And they’re full of cool little musical excursions — Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes whispering encouragement deep in the mix on “Shine,” a glimmering violin melody on “Theme Song,” a gasping synth sound on “Belly Of The Beast,” a sudden jazz drum solo that ends “Savage Nomad.”
In today’s rap climate, it’s exceedingly rare for someone to wait three years between projects and then to return with an album that wouldn’t even fill up one side of a blank tape. But Danny Brown isn’t of these times, even when he is. He’s a rapper who is still comfortable rapping about his ability to rock a show in strict fundamentalist fashion: “Your show is like the Rockettes with some majorettes/ Gimme a mic and DJ and I’m set.” His only rapping guests are his old buddies in Run The Jewels. (JPEGMAFIA shows up on the Flying Lotus-produced “Negro Spiritual,” but he’s there to do the circa-2000 Pharrell yelpy sing-speak thing on the hook, not to rap.) And if Q-Tip’s involvement wasn’t enough to tell you that Danny Brown is a rap-history student, the bit on “Belly Of The Beast” where Brown goes straight from quoting Pimp C to paraphrasing Lil B — “All these hoes on my dick because I look like Roy Orbison” — should do it.
The last few Danny Brown albums were full of rap-star cameos and scream-along party tracks. Brown used to make music for the extremely wasted, fired-up kids at his shows. He doesn’t anymore. On uknowhatimsayin¿, he’s darker, more relaxed, deeper into his comfort zone. He’s not doing comedy bits, even when he’s being funny. He’s not playing a character, even when he is a character. He’s just talking his shit and, maybe, trying to understand and communicate the pain in his past. It works beautifully. I hope he keeps doing it forever.
uknowhatimsayin¿ is out now on Warp. Stream it below.