Danny Brown has always been somewhat of an outlier in hip-hop. Gifted with the ability to present his many exploits with astounding shades of colour, humour and vocal inflections verging on the maniacal, his unorthodox style has garnered support across the globe, far beyond his home city of Detroit.
Brown’s skill in synthesising his wide-ranging influences – he has confessed to being a fan of everything from Cee-Lo Green to Bowie and Joy Division – culminated in 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition on Warp. A remarkable collection depicting the highs and lows of mental health and the ugly underbelly of the hip hop world, its outstandingly inventive instrumental choices, feverish delivery and raw lyricism will be a modern classic for years to come.
Now 38, Brown cuts a decidedly more refined figure, his previously Sideshow Bob-esque locks now tamed into a tidy buzz, his gap-toothed grin replaced with sparkling white veneers. But if a makeover and his own recent TV show on VICELAND have led some to fear that Brown has softened a little, uknowhatimsayin¿ utterly dispels the notion, with the artist adding a comedic lick of paint to his usual smorgasbord of innuendos in a brighter but less focused fifth album.
Brown’s defiance is clear on album opener ‘Change Up’, where he repeats “Never look back, I will never change up”, while on lead single ‘Dirty Laundry’ he flips the mundane chore on its head in a blitz of hilarious double entendres (“no fabric softener ‘cause I was hard” is a notable highlight). Depicting the lurid, often hollow nature of public conquests over bleeping samples and discordant beats, delivered with partnership with A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, it’s Brown at his candid, honest best.
Brown litters his best lines throughout uknowhatimsayin¿; on ‘Belly of the Beast’ it’s ‘I’m anaemic with the ink/ You a Stevie Wonder blink/ I take a piss in the same sink you wash dishes with’, while on ‘Change Up’ he bleakly acknowledges the pitfalls of hip hop stardom (‘Now I’m in a world where they pray for the weak’). Nonetheless, Brown’s traditionally been a strong album artist, so it’s a surprise to find the songs on uknowhatimsayin¿ have no discernible link. He flits from living his best life (‘’cause there ain’t no next life’) on ‘Best Life’ to steering clear of trouble on ‘Combat’, while eerie horns and siren-like synths hang ominously in ‘Shine’, a dark, pulsating closer, and the only instance where Brown matches Atrocity Exhibition’s intensity.
uknowhatimsayin¿ never veers into pastiche (a skill in itself given the sheer volume of influences Brown draws from), but there’s an inescapable lack of cohesiveness compared to his previous work. Whether deliberate or not, Brown often comes across as someone not particularly in thrall to the latest musical trends, and uknowhatimsayin¿ undoubtedly delivers in its unconventional production and sharp wit. But none of this makes up for its lack of overall message and, though containing some of Brown’s best work so far, the album ultimately lacks the cohesiveness and intensity of its predecessors. Ryan O’Neill