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New music: Danny Brown

By Troy Hasselman, October 17 2019 —

For most artists, reaching maturity means their music becomes more ambitious and conceptual, with their songs becoming bigger and their projects linked together by grand ideas that push their work into a greater realm than just writing songs. Danny Brown’s path to maturity has gone in the opposite direction. After toiling as an underground rapper in Detroit for nearly a decade, Brown released his breakthrough, XXX, in 2011. XXX was a 60-minute concept album built around the two sides of Brown’s characters — the first half containing songs built around a drug-addled hedonist that is marked by a cartoonish, high-pitched voice that he affects throughout and the second half of the album marked by downbeat, introspective songs that took a look at the turmoil and poverty that makes up his life in Detroit. The album marked Brown as one of the most exciting up-and-coming rappers, making high-concept and impactful music that experimented with sonic and lyrical conventions. This pattern continued on his follow-ups, 2013’s Old and 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition, both works that stayed with the concept of Brown’s split-personalities and experimented with genre-bending production. 

On uknowhatimsayin¿, Brown ditches the split-personalities, ambitious production and grand concepts of his past work and instead just makes a great rap album. Gone is the high-pitched squeal that characterized him in the XXX era and the cartoonish beats that pull together Atrocity Exhibition tracks like “Ain’t It Funny.” The album is executive produced by A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, who keeps a boom-bap uniformity to the beats on the album while maintaining the off-the-wall feeling that makes up so much of Brown’s past work. Even tracks with producer credits from experimentalists like JPEGMAFIA, Thundercat and Flying Lotus have the same grounded feel that runs through the album.  

Danny Brown – uknowwhatimsayin?

Brown’s lyrics have marked a strong shift as well with the over-the-top references to sex and drugs that make up the party tracks on his past album widely absent, as are the ruminations on poverty and mental health that make up his downbeat songs. uknowhatimsayin¿ is Brown in his purest form — cracking jokes, effortlessly flowing and mixing countless musical elements into a digestible whole. This is Brown’s shortest album this decade as well, clocking in at a clean 34 minutes, a far cry from the nearly hour-long length of his more recent projects. In an interview before the albums’ release, Brown mentioned that he hangs out with more comedians than other rappers and this comes through in the music, with this album boasting some of the funniest lyrics of his career. The lyrics also point towards Brown finally coming to terms with himself, he’s never sounded more at ease with who he is and less-plagued by his past issues that have shaped his music so immensely, as he raps on the album “Cause ain’t no next life, so now I’m tryna live my best life.” 

This new direction for Brown makes sense. He’s released some of the most acclaimed albums of the decade in XXX and Atrocity Exhibition and taking a step back from the ambition of those projects and just enjoying himself is understandable. This album doesn’t have the same feeling of being a masterpiece that you hear in much of Brown’s previous work and is instead just a good album. This shows him to be at a crossroad in his career and with what will likely be remembered as his best work behind him, Brown is just having fun and seems to be finally at peace with himself. While this isn’t as compelling or engrossing as his past albums, it is still a solid hip-hop album and a strong outing from one of rap’s most enigmatic MC’s.

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