Danny Brown – ‘uknowhatimsaying¿’ review: a hellraiser reflects on a life lived at full speed

The restless invention and wild energy remains, but his focused, compact fifth record finds the Detroit rapper on clear-eyed and contemplative form

Danny Brown‘s appeal has always lain in his chaos: frenzied, frenetic rhymes over fast-paced beats coupled with a penchant for the absurd. Throughout his discography, though, the Detroit native has matured as an artist and his latest album, ‘uknowhatimsayin¿’, is a more focused, sombre project that sidesteps what audiences should expect from one of rap’s most unique figures.

Where Danny Brown’s previous was designed to appeal to a specific, loyal fanbase, ‘uknowhatimsayin¿’ is much more palatable. This is largely achieved through a variety of guest features, along with production from the legendary Q-Tip, who’s at the helm for several songs.

Since the release of his debut album ‘The Hybrid’ in 2010, Brown has been forthright about his issues. His ability to be contemplative slotted nicely alongside his infectious energy. On ‘uknowhatimsayin¿’, he’s a much more measured MC, evidenced by the opening bars of the album: “They thought I was gone / Back from the grave / Mind of a master / Blood of a slave / Heart of a king / Stuck in-between / The devil and angel on my shoulder”.

Where Brown’s last two albums, ‘Old’ and ‘Atrocity Exhibition’, both critically acclaimed, detailed in-depth his drug habits, addiction and insecurities, they were playing out in real-time. What makes ‘uknowhatimsayin¿’ standout is Brown reflecting on a life lived and having no regrets, coming to terms with both his stardom and sobriety. Over rich, soulful production from Q-Tip, Brown raps on the stand-out single ’Best Life’: “I was just a young n*gga / Know what I was headed for / Jumped up off the porch, really, I wasn’t ready for it / Get up out the hood, find a way out / Route I’m on, either death or jailhouse / Wanna get away from all this stress / For me, momma just wanted the best”.

Brown’s introspection is the anchor holding the album together. It further solids the belief that it is near-impossible to put Danny Brown in a box: the man continues to bypass expectations of him as he wears multiple sashes with ease. He manages to still find space for his off-kilter, frenzied raps, which marry absurdity and hilarity so well, typified by the Q-Tip-produced ‘Dirty Laundry’, which is a running account of places Brown has had sex in: “Once got a ho, ain’t had money for the room / So we did the humpty hump in a Burger King bathroom / Lowkey kept it undercover / The way she slurp slurp, she’s the quicker picker upper.”

‘uknowhatimsayin¿’ isn’t a one-man show and Brown knows how to play with others. Rising London artist ‘Obongjayar’ croons majestically, stealing both the title track and ‘Belly of The Beast’. Run The Jewels aptly do what’s expected of them by laying down punchy verses full of one-off quotable lines on the JPEGMAFIA-produced ‘3 Tearz’. Meanwhile, JPEGMAFIA himself sings and raps over production from Flying Lotus and Thundercat on ‘Negro Spiritual’. Blood Orange’s voice is melancholic on ‘Shine’, a perfect accompaniment to the pared-back production from Standing On The Corner and Paul White, as well as Brown’s acerbic raps.

To many, Danny Brown is an acquired taste. On ‘uknowhatimsayin¿’, he subtly brings together various aspects of what makes the rapper peerless. With irresistible energy we were already aware of, Brown’s reflections on his past are equally as engaging, while the guest features he collaborates with help elevate the album. Where his previous projects felt sprawling, ’uknowhatimsayin¿’ succeeds in feeling compact while delivering a powerful project that is expertly produced and concisely executed.