By Maki Nientao
uknowwhatimsayin¿ is rapper Danny Brown’s fifth full-length release, following his critically strongest to date , Atrocity Exhibition. He’s certainly proven himself to be among the most skillful, lyrically adept rap artists of the 2010s, and this latest album is undeniably another fantastic record he has under his belt. With production ranging from Q-Tip to Flying Lotus and features including Run the Jewels, JPEGMAFIA and lesser known artists like Obongjayar, uknowwhatimsayin¿ is generally a fun, light-hearted album made up of 11 well-curated songs.
The opener “Change Up” is nothing very revolutionary, but acts as a solid introduction to the record. Danny’s flow here is mediocre, staying stagnant during most of both verses. However, the instrumentals compliment his vocals well and are simple but effective. It opens with these two poignant guitar chords that ring out through the first verse, as well as a straightforward beat and bassline. During the chorus and second verse, the guitar is replaced by some airy, blanketing synths which add a great new layer to the instrumentals. Danny does reveal one of the more prevalent “themes” in his lyrics (really, it’s more of an idea that recurs a few times throughout): pushing through hard times, while also acknowledging the destructive ways of dealing with pain (i.e. drug/alcohol abuse).
“Theme Song” is similarly strong instrumentally and Danny’s flow on this one is much more fleshed out. Lyrically, however, it gets a bit worse than the previous song. The references, wordplay, and punchlines are all here, but generally Danny doesn’t have much to say besides calling out new school hip-hop. Under another light, it sets up his newfound maturity (more on that later), but despite this, it isn’t a great lyrical outing compared to what he is capable of.
Next are two of the singles, “Dirty Laundry” and “3 Tearz”. “Dirty Laundry” is the first beat produced by Q-Tip, and it doesn’t disappoint; its most memorable characteristic is the metronomic rhythm that plays from start to finish and, despite its simplicity, it makes the song stand out. Danny’s lyrics here are more like a stand-up routine than rap verses because of how hilariously absurd and goofy they are, and it really ties the song together as a joking, light-hearted banger. “3 Tearz” features a sample from a Kanye West interview in the intro and moves pretty swiftly into the JPEGMAFIA-produced instrumental and Danny’s vocals. It’s an all around solid beat with some distorted organ and what sounds like a police siren in the background during the chorus. Like many of the previous instrumentals, it has a signature trait and is filled out with a simple but clean bassline and drum beat. On the vocal end you get another good verse from from Danny as well as a “Run The Jewels” feature. El-P is average at best, but Killer Mike delivers a great verse. Even compared to Danny, his flow and lyrics are fantastic (particularly in the second half) and by the end he leaves you wanting more. This track as a whole is probably one of the least exciting of the album, but only because of what came before it and what comes after.
The next track, “Belly of the Beast” is more of an interlude, but this doesn’t take away from its own qualities. Danny delivers one of the funniest verses of the record here, with the help of the London-based artist Obongjayar, who provides some really strong, husky vocals in the song’s chorus. It ends with this heartbeat-like rhythm that flows perfectly into “Savage Nomad”.
The album’s climax is made up of “Savage Nomad” and “Best Life”. The instrumental on “Savage Nomad” is the most energetic of the record with this warped electric guitar riff that continues until the end and a laugh track sample that acts as the interlude and outro. Danny is top notch on this song, both with his flow and lyrics, and definitely takes a lot of inspiration from 90s New York rap such as the Wu Tang Clan. There was so much wordplay, so many references and jokes that flew right by my head during the first few listens just because of how great Danny sounds on the track and how hard the beat goes, easily making it my favorite song of the album. Not far behind, though, is “Best Life”. It’s another great instrumental from Q-Tip featuring these upbeat vocal and string samples laced throughout the song, and another great outing for Danny; he raps about his past as a drug dealer and how now he’s living his best life. This is another instance where the instrumental and the song’s message compliment each other very well; the beat has a very uplifting vibe to it and Danny’s lyrics about living your best life fits this atmosphere really well.
Up next is the title track “uknowwhatimsayin¿”. The instrumental is mediocre on this one because the beat relies heavily on the very bright synth passages which are sort of cheerful, but don’t do much beyond that. Everything else concerning the instrumental is pretty typical for this album. Lyrically the song is all about Danny’s advice and life lessons to a younger generation; while the vocals aren’t very complex (he ends every sentence with “you know what I’m sayin”), the repetition works to great effect and offers a bit of a reprise from the energetic rapping of the rest of the album.
The Flying Lotus-produced track “Negro Spiritual” is another great one; strong instrumentals, strong vocals, strong lyrics. Not much more to say but that.
“Shine”, the penultimate song, is the least in line with the tone of the rest of the album. It’s much moodier and darker, and Danny raps about losing his career, feeling alone, and using drugs to “forget it all”. It’s certainly a callback to the mood of his earlier albums, almost as if he’s peeking back from where he stands now. The instrumental reflects this shift in tone very well with a much slower tempo and some wailing synths during the intro and parts of the verses. The feature from Blood Orange in the chorus has him singing two voices at once, but you can’t really hear or catch on to either of them, making it the one downside to an overall very strong track.
“Combat”, produced entirely by Q-Tip, is a great send-off for the record. While the instrumental is very strong, the highlight of the song is Danny Brown. He delivers three verses, and they really encompass everything he wants to say on this album; the first is full of his jokes and clever one-liners, the second is his advice to face the world, and the third is the glimpse of betrayal, loss, and fear we got on “Shine”, “Change Up”, and bits of other songs. However, the outro for the song is the same as the intro: a sample from an interview about NYC gangs in the 70s where a guy is talking about “beer-can bazookas”, returning to the comedic basis of this project.
Many reviews on this record seem to claim that uknowwhatimsayin¿ has no main motif, and that it is more a collection of songs than a thematically connected project. This may seem true when compared to some of Danny Brown’s earlier albums, where depression, anxiety, and even suicide would be the central themes of entire projects. But as he has changed (going from having a half shaved head and a gap in his teeth to the more casual look of the album cover) so has his music. uknowwhatimsayin¿ isn’t a “themeless” album, but it doesn’t take itself all too seriously. Instead, it uses the themes of his previous albums and says something new: however dark life may be, there’s always fun to be had.