Danny Brown Is All Spark, Verve and Energy on ‘uknowhatimsayin¿’

Danny Brown is a truly significant figure in the contemporary musical landscape, as he infuses fresh spark and refreshingly oddball ingenuity into a genre that has long become relatively stale, managing to do it in a way that achieves broad appeal despite its downright bizarreness. Typically, he started out with mixtapes, and made a breakthrough with 2011’s “XXX,” with a character and charisma that couldn’t be ignored. He built on momentum with his 2013 followup “Old,” which found him tapping into trends of the day, to high success. On his last album, “Atrocity Exhibition,” he displayed a general trend of dissociating with the modes of the day, and indulging his already boldly individual instincts. His latest album, “uknowhatimsayin¿” is the natural next step in this trajectory, and shows Brown as a master of his craft, simultaneously nodding heavily to old school styles and moving aggressively into the future. For the album, he worked with Q-tip of the legendary Tribe Called Quest, who served essentially as a mentor and guide. Brown has spoken at length of his enthusiasm for working with one of his idols, and this enthusiasm shows throughout the new album, with every bit sounding fresh and inspired.  

It’s apparent from the first few seconds of opener “Change Up,” that Danny Brown means business, as energetic as ever. A stylistic shift has been a while in the making, and especially materializes on this album, as Brown has now steered fully clear from the trap stylings that he occasionally dabbled with earlier, and he could hardly be further removed from his electronic, dubstep explorations of recent years. This album runs from start to finish as straight hip-hop — beats and bars, and Brown starts off making sure to make that clear. Brown has developed a persona at this point that he’s sticking with, in fact exaggerating, seeming to relish and truly embrace all the comic effect of his particular eccentricity. The refrain of this song is “Never look back, I would never change up,” and Brown raps like he means it. He has of course changed the beats that he raps over, but his phenomenally ridiculous voice has stayed consistent since day one, and the new album starts as a satisfying reminder that he’s still at it. 

“Theme Song” starts off with a beat that recalls a RZA production from classic Wu-Tang era, and Brown sounds straight up rachet — no qualms, all business. His cadence and flow are in the same spirit of the Pharcyde, with the energy of rap outliers like Busta Rhymes, in terms of outlandish energy. This song is essentially a diss track without a particular object — just an outburst directed at general phoniness, and a bit of fun with standard hip-hop braggadocio. Come lead single “Dirty Laundry,” it’s especially clear that Danny Brown is loving unabashedly doing his own thing. The music is cartoonishly festive, somewhere between mariachis and rave, and hardly anything that you would normally expect to be rapped over, until the snares kick in, and it hits as hard as possible. It’s a song about sexual exploits and experiences, and can get a bit jarring with its vulgarity, but that’s no real surprise, and the way Brown just screams on whim at certain moments is headrush, making for a riot of a single. 

On “3 Tearz,” Brown joins forces with Run the Jewels, and the song has an old school boom-bap style, with just enough modern refurbishing, that will be an especial fun for fans of El-P, as it echoes his Company Flow days. Killer Mike too is on top of his game, as always, and the song is a quick blast of fury and fire. On “Belly of the Beast,” Brown has some disgusting lyrics, and one is forced to wonder what type of mental ailment could make him think anyone would find this appealing. Luckily, the song is short. UK via Nigeria singer Obongjayar shows up, adding some original flavor with some vaguely reggae hooks, but it’s far from enough from saving the track, unless you have an exceptional tolerance for crassness. 

“Savage Nomad” was at one point suggested by Q-tip as the album title, and has at least made its way into the album as a track. It’s a pretty fitting descriptor for Brown, and an especially vibrant track, with a high octane, looped bit of guitar solo indulgence spurring on Brown to rage for a full track. A song like this demonstrates just how good of a rapper Brown is, and the obvious enjoyment that he gets from indulging in his craft is magnetic. “Best Life” gets more throwback than perhaps anything yet, and finds Brown switching up his voice slightly to a lower register, which is a relief, because as exciting as his voice is, it can be hard to digest in high doses. Brown repeats, “I’m living my best life,” and you have to take him at his word, because he’s killing it. 

The title track has an especial amount of trang, and another appearance from Obongjayar. One thing that consistently stands out about Danny Brown is how his music rings in the more playful spirit of early ‘90s hip-hop, when it was flat tops and bright colors, and this song is a prime example. Brown and Obongjayar have a natural chemistry, trading lines loosely, and Brown recalls the hardships of his earlier life, the likes of jail in Detroit, still sounding about as ebullient as possible, and making a stunning example of optimism at its most creatively channeled. Come “Negro Spiritual,” Brown is building on so much momentum that he’s shouting lines at breakneck speed, and the album has really settled into a distinctive groove, with abounding personality and flair. Featured artist JPEGMAFIA sounds a little uncannily like Pharell Williams, and it’s an effective, lively paring. The production is the work of no other than Flying Lotus, and demonstrates as much genius as should be expected, with a wealth of adeptly selected references and expressions that saturate the track with cool and character. 

As if the involvement of Fly Lo weren’t exciting enough, the next song, “Shine,” comes with an appearance from Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange. It’s no surprise that Danny Brown attracts an assemblage of colorful characters. Hynes hovers in the background singing a bit coyly, in almost a Thom Yorke type of way, and at this point, the album is so overloaded with whims and textures that it’s getting positively ridiculous. “Combat” seals the deal just right, with a saxophone soloing in tandem with Brown, in some brilliant synergy. Suddenly, you hear the unmistakable voice of Q-tip. He waited slickly until the final track to make his voice heard. The song samples the 1979 documentary “80 Blocks From Tiffany,” about the rivalry between two rival gangs. Brown and Q-tip repeat “It’s a combat zone,” but with an acceptance that ultimately resonates in a positive light. 

“uknowhatimsayin¿” is an album that sounds more steeped in old school hip-hop stylings than contemporary style, an outcome that could have been predicted from Brown having released a prior album titled “Old.” That said, Brown has such a unique voice and colorful personality that there’s nothing old to this album whatsoever. The involvement of Q-tip informs the album in a way that makes for an especially panoramic experience of hip-hop in general. The likes of Flying Lotus and Dev Hynes bring things over the top in the perfect aesthetic complement. Brown is a character, needless to say, and he’s bound to have his hits and misses, sometimes coming across as somewhat cringeworthy, but that’s the flipside of having so much artistic integrity and boldness. On the whole, it’s a wild, entertaining album from an especially creative voice. 

uknowhatimsayin¿” is available Oct. 4 on Apple Music.