Brown might be drug dealing, stealing and rapping, but he still needs to have clean undies.
Danny Brown broke out with XXX in 2011, a sleazy, hedonistic and desperate cry for legacy, like Ozymandias rifling through the rubble. A reference to his age and the parental advisory sticker that needed to be attached, XXX had Brown climbing out of the brackish sounds of Detroit like the Toxic Avenger, mutated into something captivating. His squawk sounded like cocaine, lines as raunchy and dangerous as a Tarantino flick. When he released non-album single “Grown Up” in 2012, it seemed like the most mature he’d ever get, as he’d either expand into a world of sheer debauchery or be dead. Old was his tribute to fellow mad man Ol’ Dirty Bastard with songs like “Kush Coma” turning into party anthems, even as the ringleader wiped tears from his eyes. The Joy Division-referencing, Pink Floyd-sampling, Kid A-worshiping Atrocity Exhibition was Brown at rock bottom, realizing that his panic attacks and depression were secondary to his raps for the audience. To quote Earl Sweatshirt, “I need the verse, I don’t care about what you going through/ Or what you gotta do nigga/ I need bars, sixteen of ’em.”
But Brown’s miraculously come out on the other side. He shaved off the Flock of Seagulls mop, got his teeth fixed, made a TV show and has aged gracefully for a guy who threatened to literally “shit all on your mixtape.” uknowhatimsayin¿, with production from Q-Tip, is Brown at his most restrained and relaxed. It’s an album focused on acceptance, of the past, present and future. The psychedelic boom-bap is a far cry from the EDM flavored beats on Old and even Brown’s squealing vocals take a step back. If Old was the spiraling Party X and Atrocity Exhibition was the horrific comedown, uknowhatimsayin¿ is the hangover finally wearing off.
But all of that is in comparison to Brown’s own internal world. For the rest of Hip-hop, uknowhatimsayin¿ is still a blistering album. Long time conspirator Paul White co-produces a handful of tracks, with an acidic and sharp sound sliming over the beats. Opener “Change Up” is a faded Ennio Morricone score, dusty drums and choral organ billowing in the background with Brown in clear-eyed view, wrestling with a legacy that nearly killed him. The first half of the album indulges in a similar psychic soul. “Theme Song” burbles with lava lamp keyboards, whispered vocals and romantic violin sweeps. “Savage Nomad” could have, maybe should have, been the theme to a good Shaft remake. Despite the desperate elements in the beats, Brown rides all of them all smoothly.
And Brown treats his stories with a similar care, gravitas over sensationalism. The same soulful production that reinvigorated Ghostface Killah’s career is now granting Brown levity. Standout “Dirty Laundry” recalls both the opening line from his breakout “Monopoly,” but also his early drug dealing days. A crackhead complains when he leaves an 8-ball in his wash, “fiends say it taste like soap.” Later he fucks a stripper then sees her at the laundromat the next day, using his cash to pay for the drier. Brown would have once exploded this out into a fantasy-scope epic, but the hyper-detailed through line of uknowhatimsayin¿ provides a grounding. Brown might be drug dealing, stealing and rapping, but he still needs to have clean undies. That dichotomy makes him feel more human than ever.
The only misstep is further proof of Brown’s maturity and strength. “Belly of the Beast,” with its over the top lines and bravado would have fit well over the twitchy beats on Old, but with the simmering mood of uknowhatimsayin¿ there’s cognitive dissonance. He does get a gold star for “Hoes on my dick ’cause I look like Roy Orbison,” but even if it was a weary look back to his Caligula days, it’s out of place next to the rest of the lean, sharp and smart surroundings. Who’d have thought Brown would make it to old head status, much less a wise and witty elder statesman.