“Ain’t no pretend, ain’t tryna make amends / Just tryna keep my legacy, I’m legend in the end,” Danny Brown raps on “Change Up,” the desolate opening track to his new album uknowhatimsayin¿. Danny Brown has been one of the most consistently great rappers this decade, his adventurous ear and gonzo humor spread across four full-lengths and numerous features. His latest album solidifies that legacy by reviewing familiar themes with a fresh approach.
The Detroit artist’s sound has continually evolved to match the concept of each album, and he points to deceased art-rock god David Bowie as an example. After plunging into the industrial goth abyss on 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition, the concept for his latest project uknowhatimsayin¿ is no concept. (Which in Bowie terms would mean it’s his Tonight, I guess?) “Is the music good or not? You don’t need to put the tracklist backwards or anything, you know what I’m sayin?” the Detroit rapper recently told Pigeons & Planes. “Just rap—dope beats and dope rhymes.”
Danny has referred to uknowhatimsayin¿ as “his version of a stand-up comedy album.” Of course, he’s always been funny in his verses. (His breakout project XXX, where he boasts about literally shitting on your mixtape, “wipe with the credits, leave stains on the jewel case,” was just ranked among the 100 best albums of the decade by Pitchfork.) But previously the jokes were there to lighten up the horror of his hardscrabble situations. Now the ratio has flipped, like he’s looking back on his life through the Get-A-Load Of This Guy Cam. There’s an adage from mid-century comedian Steve Allen that comedy is “tragedy plus time;” perhaps, after years as an internationally touring rapper, he feels far enough removed to look at tragic circumstances in a new light.
Hence lead single “Dirty Laundry.” It’s a no-hook compendium of some of Danny’s scummiest moments from back when his main concern was selling drugs without violating his parole. He can afford a prostitute but not a room, so they meet in a Burger King bathroom like Humpty Hump. He turns detergent brands into gun talk with “High Tide, Gain off of Arm & Hammer.”
The literal and metaphorical interpretations of the title interlock in the final verse, where he pays a stripper for sex with change he had left over from the laundromat and spots her doing laundry the very next morning. It’s the sort of free-associative thrill ride Robin Williams used to specialize in, especially while under the influence of the powders Danny used to traffic. It might not all be true, but he’s not lying. It’s not a joke, but it’s funny as hell.
“Belly of the Beast” is from a separate routine entirely. Longtime producer Paul White creates a barely-there beat out of pinging bass notes and vocal sighs. Nigerian singer Obongjayar offers a yearning chorus in his gravelly voice: “They can’t contain me, I’m free / it feels like losing your mind.” The overall effect is like a glimpse of some unknown netherworld beyond human comprehension, like the best psychedelic trip imaginable, and the punchline is Danny’s verses are down-to-earth sex talk. “If it smell like syrup, you gon’ get this work,” he says, “but if it smell like perch, gotta disperse.” And that’s after he brags “Hoes on my dick ‘cuz I look like Roy Orbison.”
To be clear, Danny’s not only focused on sex. He tries out other hip-hop tropes on this record, like a stand-up finding new ways to joke about dating or airplane food. “Savage Nomad” is a flashback to childhood, fighting on the playground after school and stealing the scales from chemistry class for unsanctioned extracurriculars. He references Minnie Riperton and Eric B. & Rakim in the same verse, despite sounding the polar opposite of those artists’ smoothness over rigid hi-hats and squealing guitar. To rhyme it with “impotent” and “licorice,” the rapper bends “LinkedIn” into three syllables. It’s a reference to a podcast, sure, but it also sounds like how a kid might mispronounce a social media site he has no business being on.
“Theme Song” is a diss track. Danny is demanding respect from a new class of rappers ripping off his outlandish style and getting rich, instead of losing a label deal like he did. If he has a specific rapper in mind, it’s too tricky to pin down, but pity anyone whose music is compared to disgraced pastor “Bishop Eddie Long with a thong on.” A$AP Ferg bellows affirmations in the background, like a hypeman chiming in via FaceTime.
Only two other rappers appear on uknowhatimsayin¿, and they’re veterans like Danny himself. Run The Jewels, the duo of El-P and Killer Mike, appear on posse cut “3 Tearz” to boast about not caring about anything and illuminate the pasts that brought them there. Danny fakes being a crack user so he doesn’t get caught selling in the wrong territory, while El hosts Death on his couch and stalls him with jokes. Like their last collaboration, it’s steep competition, but Killer Mike gets the best line, capping the track with “Win in the end like Tina did goddamn Ike.”
Other luminaries are lurking in the album credits. Dev Hynes of Blood Orange sings the chorus of “Shine,” his airy voice a natural counterpoint to Danny’s yelp. Aggro rising star JPEGMAFIA pops up twice, providing the loping beat for “3 Tearz” and a breathy, Pharrell-esque hook on “Negro Spiritual.” Flying Lotus and Thundercat supply the frantic beat for the latter track, which feels like riding in a car swerving across every lane.
The biggest name attached to the album is executive producer Q-Tip. Though he only produced a few beats for the album himself, all three continue the loose, funky sound explored on the last A Tribe Called Quest record. In particular, Tip shows how to color outside the lines with the chords on “Best Life,” a shoo-in for feel-good rap song of the year. Most importantly, Danny credits the Tribe mastermind with pushing for a simplified sound, requiring him to “damn near relearn how to rap.” Q-Tip may have only been behind the boards for three tracks, but his influence is felt across the record. It’s easy to imagine him lending his ear to other middle-aged rappers in need of a way forward, but Tip is likely too bombastic of a talent to settle into being a background figure forever.
After anticipating trends like pills, EDM beats, and mall goth chic, Danny Brown has sidestepped them entirely on uknowhatimsayin¿. He’s re-focused on spitting memorable verses over hard beats, and as a result, created one of 2019’s best rap albums. It’s replayable with its 33-minute runtime, and the psychedelic beats ensure there’s something new to notice with each spin. Like the best stand-up specials, the album is meant to be passed among friends, choice passages memorized and referenced ad nauseam. As long as there are fans guffawing as their heads knock, rest assured, Danny Brown’s legacy is secured.