Detroit’s Danny Brown has one of the greatest rap voices this side of B-Real of Cypress Hill. Like the legendary LA rapper, Brown modulates his voice so he’s high pitched, B-Real did this purposefully, in part to sound distinct, in part to sound stoned all the time. I presume Brown did the same, given his back catalogue is full of paeans to Mary Jane, including, on his last album, a song with B-Real about smoking blunts. Brown is hip hop’s wild child, spinning fantastic yarns about his sexual escapades, playing video games and driving around and, well, smoking up. His last album, Atrocity Exhibit, might have been the greatest hip hop album of 2016 this side of A Tribe Called Quest’s swan song, We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service. Clearly he’s not your standard rapper, given his last album was inspired in part by Joy Division’s song of the same name.
On uknowwhatimsayin¿ he sounds, um, calmer? This doesn’t mean we’ve got an album of paint-by-numbers hip hop. But whilst Brown still tells a hilarious story about his sexual escapades and philosophy of life, amongst other things, the paranoia of his earlier albums has lifted, at least sonically. To be sure, he declares defiantly on the first track, ‘Change Up’: ‘I’m never gonna change.’ But, at the same time, he’s pushing 40, and by that point in our lives, we’ve seen some shit, both good and bad, which he acknowledges in the title track, ‘Times hard? No, you can’t give up/Know what I’m sayin?/ Like bad luck, never get enough/ Know what I’m sayin?/What a shame, you the best, no less/ Know what I’m sayin?/ You know life gonna put you to the test/Know what I’m sayin?’
uknowwhatimsaying¿ was executive produced by Q-Tip, he also produced three of the tracks directly, the producer’s chair is otherwise filled by Brown’s usual partner-in-crime, Paul White, as well as a smattering of guest producers. The thing is, though, the entire album, give or take a track, sounds like a Q-Tip production. One exception is the Jpegmafia produced ‘3 Tearz’, a collaboration with Run the Jewels. Killer Mike, of course, steals the show, he’s one of the rawest and most vicious rappers out there. As an aside, Run the Jewels might be the best collaboration in the history of hip hop. On one hand, you’ve got the vicious raps of Killer Mike, who can drop a rhyme like few others. And then you’ve got El-P, who is a mighty MC in his own right, but he’s an even better producer and beat-maker (see, for example, Killer Mike’s last solo album before Run the Jewels formed, R.A.P. Music.
Brown’s sly sense of humour can still be felt in the music, poking through occasionally, such as on ‘Savage Nomad,’ where a horn line descends between the beats and over a mind-numbing bass line. ‘Best Life’ has a wicked string arrangement over the beat, with this sly guitar chord repeated in an off-beat spot. The last track, ‘Combat’ sees Tip stroll in from the booth, bringing Consequence along with him. And whereas Tip and Common are smooth, rapping around the horn riff, Brown, nah. He just pops up, smothers Consequence’s rap and just sprays all over the beat.
Lyrically, we get more of the same as we always get from Brown. This is also a good thing. Hip hop was founded on story-telling. The pioneers of hip hop (speaking of which, the Canadian documentary, The Evolution of Hip Hop, hosted by the excellent MC Shad, from 2016, is currently on Netflix; watch it!) were yarn tellers, telling their stories over funky beats, about the girls they liked, the cars they wished they had, and, as gangsta rap rose on the West Coast, about their interactions with the police. Sure, some (or maybe a lot) of these tracks were based on nothing more than fantasy, but that’s not the point. Hip hop is, or at least was, about stories. And then it went mainstream, it got commercial and, well, that’s how we get Drake. Also, fuck Drake.
All in all, Brown keeps up his end of the bargain, his raps remain both hilarious and paranoiac. He’s not changed, and maybe that’s the the joke of uknowhatimsayin¿, he’s only pretending to be grown up with the jazzy and blues beats from Q-Tip. Whatevs, this is easily the best hip hop album of 2019 (and there won’t be another A Tribe Called Quest album this year).