Alex examines the ins and outs of the highly anticipated fifth studio album from seasoned hip-hop artist Danny Brown.
It’s been three years since Danny Brown released his critically acclaimed masterpiece Atrocity Exhibition, a harsh and experimental rap record which explored the mental health and substance abuse problems of the enigmatic Detroit hip-hop artist. Brown’s been relatively quiet in those three years, releasing the three singles for his new LP in quick succession just weeks before the highly anticipated album dropped.
This release pattern is in deep contrast to the stream heavy business practices which modern day hip-hop has been embracing in recent years, such as adding two year old songs to hour long projects in order to increase streaming numbers (beerbongs & bentleys, ASTROWORLD). In many ways, this business practice sums up Danny Brown very well; a hip-hop artist who exists in his own world of experimentation, purely focused on the music and not the capitalistic anti-consumer methods practiced by the major labels, which have taken advantage of the world of streaming. Despite its old-school release pattern, Brown works hard to bring together both the old and new generations, resulting in a fantastic collaboration between modern day rap antihero JPEGMAFIA and legendary A Tribe Called Quest producer Q Tip on the track 3 Tearz (featuring Run the Jewels).
This album is short, sitting at only 11 tracks and 33 minutes long, but in its short run time Brown delivers an in depth and deeply scathing analysis of himself and American culture. Ultimately, this culminates in a brilliant album for the 38 year old rap veteran which another older Detroit hip-hop artist could only dream of putting together at this stage in their career.
The album opens with an almost western inspired boom-bap beat produced by regular collaborator Paul White on the track Change Up, which also features an ominous guitar sample and almost MC Ride inspired ad libs backing up Brown’s smooth delivery and self-deprecating bars. ‘The devil and an angel on my shoulder when I speak’, raps Brown, showing a self-awareness of the fact that his lyrics can often echo a desire to both change himself but also to wallow in his own flaws. Not every bar hits as hard as this – the typical outrageous sexual Danny Brown humor found on Atrocity Exhibition is still here, as shown in the Dirty Laundry line: ‘Mop the floor when I leave, might slip if I do’.
'In its short run time Brown delivers an in depth and deeply scathing analysis of himself and American culture'.
However, the theme of self-awareness continues throughout the album and the rare existence of a weak line is saved by glistening production, courtesy of Q Tip and guest producers Flying Lotus (amongst others). For example, the second track Theme Song can seem on the surface like a simple diss track towards rappers Brown thinks ‘show no respect’. However, the prominent violin sample, Brown’s eccentricity and an exceptional flow results in a fun and beautiful sounding slow jam.
Lead single Dirty Laundry is a typical Danny Brown song in every way, with its experimental N64 sounding beat and brutal honesty. Reminiscent of his 2016 hit Ain’t it Funny, there’s nothing wrong with Dirty Laundry and it certainly isn’t a filler track. However, the following track 3 Tearz features rap super-group Run The Jewels over Peggy production (which almost sounds like it samples a Dusty Springfield song), and it undoubtedly dominates. It is very rare for Brown to be overshadowed on a track, however Killer Mike and El-P give exceptional performances. This is the best Killer Mike guest verse in years, with his appearance on Freddie Gibbs and Madlib's Bandana being a relatively disappointing hook.
'In typical Danny Brown fashion, he also manages to be absolutely hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time'.
Danny Brown has always been good at getting great verses from guest artists (Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt on Really Doe anyone?), so it’s a shame that the usual charisma and chaotic delivery of a JPEGMAFIA verse isn’t prevalent in his appearance on the track Negro Spiritual. Instead, we get Peggy giving his best Pharrell impression over a groovy beat produced by Thundercat and Flying Lotus. It’s not as if sounding similar to Pharrell is a bad thing, but after his phenomenal All My Heroes Are Cornballs album earlier this year, I expected more. Despite this slight disappointment, the rest of the guest features are the perfect complement to Brown’s screechy and excited delivery. Dev Hynes gives a catchy M.I.A inspired hook on the track Shine as Brown gives a heartbreaking commentary on the American economic system, rapping ‘In a system that’s designed, one strike take it all / pray you lose it all, one second, all gone’. Meanwhile, Obongjayar's relaxed hooks on the tracks Belly of the Beast and uknowhatimsayin¿ are a great use of his afrobeat delivery.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the guest spots on this album, however it is important to note that most of the best moments are down to Brown himself, especially on the tracks Savage Nomad, Best Life and Combat. The first two use frequent semantic fields of school life and childhood in order to show the extreme hardships Brown had to endure to get to the position he’s in now. Highlights include the lines ‘Been through so many raids we treat that shit like it’s a fire drill’, and ‘I’ll pull up at your playground at quarter to three motherfucker’. In typical Danny Brown fashion, he also manages to be absolutely hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time; not many rappers would have the balls or skill to fit in a Minnie Riperton reference right next to the line ‘I ignore a whore like an email from LinkedIn’, but Brown managed it.
The theme of a troubled youth continues into the next track Best Life, which features a nice change with a happy soul sample of the 1976 track Make You Happy by Tommy McGee. However, this tone and the seemingly optimistic Hardy Caprio-esque hook of ‘Cause ain’t no next life, so now I’m tryna live my best life’ aren’t indicative of the lyrical content of this track, which actually is profoundly depressing. Brown admits he’s been extremely lucky to break out of the cycle of violence from which he came – he’s ‘not supposed to be here, dead, like Weekend at Bernie’s’. It’s an introspective and philosophical track, and it’s what Brown does best.
'Brown brings together the new innovations of 21st century hip-hop whilst also staying true to its boom bap roots, which allowed artists like to him to exist in the first place'.
The album concludes with a bluesy horn sample which sounds like it could belong on an MF DOOM track, featuring a hidden Q Tip feature – a perfect metaphor for this album. Brown brings together the new innovations of 21st century hip-hop whilst also staying true to its boom bap roots, which allowed artists like to him to exist in the first place. Whilst its laid back attitude and lack of experimentation stops it from being as good as his 2016 masterpiece Atrocity Exhibition, uknowhatimsayin¿ is still a great album. If this was released in a year which hadn’t seen incredible releases from Tyler, The Creator, Freddie Gibbs/Madlib and slowthai, it would have had real shot of reaching hip-hop album of the year.