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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

Album Review: uknowhatimsayin? by Danny Brown

Updated: Oct 16, 2019

In his new album, rap’s resident trickster pops the clutch and runs circles around his contemporaries, all before speeding off, once again, on his pot-holed road to nowhere.

Detroit’s Danny Brown is a rare and beautiful unicorn. Born to teenaged parents, in trouble with the law from his mid-teens onwards, sex-crazed, drug-obsessed, utterly outrageous and preternaturally gifted when it comes to wordplay, we should count our lucky stars that he’s still alive.

I say this because we have things to learn from him. Danny Brown is hip hop’s Brer Rabbit. He’s a cunning fool who breaks the rules. He is his own worst enemy too, getting by on mischief and wit, somehow clinging onto life by the skin of his (recently fixed) teeth, conscious that the next bit of trouble is just around the corner.

We would not want to be him, and we would probably not like to have him round for dinner, but by goodness is he interesting – and in him we can see reflections of our dirtiest selves.

The existential dread.

The mad prince, losing his marbles.

Needless to say, if you are only now tuning into the Danny Brown saga, you have missed a bit, and I would recommend finishing reading this then going away and doing a bit of homework.

To start, you might ignore his earliest work, back before he found his trademark cartoon voice – the gravelly squawk and nasally, slaaaangy delivery. But it is definitely worth giving a listen to three of his previous records – 2011’s XXX, 2013’s Old, and 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition.

I say this because while most of modern American rap music is obsessed with either aping Kanye West’s auto-tuned Trap warbles or chasing the bleeding-edge conscious style of Kendrick Lamar, Danny Brown is in his own lane.

He follows in the footsteps of Wu Tang Clan’s Old Dirty Bastard, California’s Cypress Hill or the endlessly innovative MF Doom: his music is weird, uncomfortable, funny, and it revels in its own filth.

It’s all a bit mad, and has, very clearly, only come about because Danny, an incredibly clever person, has taken a lot of drugs.

Anyhow, as you will know if you have heard those aforementioned Danny Brown albums, they are sticky, crunky, offbeat horror shows – each a collection of damaged baby pictures, trashed party houses and carnival noises.

Each is also hilarious while being horrible also – assortments of glib reactions to outrageous misfortune.

Each of those albums is semi-autobiographical too, and with that in mind it is encouraging that on U Know What I'm Sayin'? we find Danny having had enough of poverty, heroin and being chased by the police.

He is a successful rapper now.


Albeit from himself.

In this safety though, he has had the space to ask, what now? And why? Is there a broader point to any of this? If I knock on wood, is it hollow?

His answers to these questions are refreshing. Undoubtedly, his rap career has given him some room to breathe financially. He is no longer quite so hungry, and, in addition to working with his long-time collaborator Paul White, this influx of money means that he is now able to commission A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip to aid on production duties.

At the same time though, Danny is no less the person he always was. His proclivities are the same, as are the dive bars he frequents, and the old familiar faces he sees. He is not free from his history, or from himself.

But when you have it all, you know what you do? You take a victory lap!

Don’t you?

And that doubt in the face of victory - that is what makes this album special.

At its heart then, a lot of U Know What I'm Sayin'? is about fun. Danny is a man at the top of his game. He doesn’t need to write hit singles? That’s good! Sex and drugs are still cheap? Fantastic! Life is meaningless? Well then, let’s enjoy it!

The facile veneers of these songs mask terror, of course. We find Danny sleeping with prostitutes for small change on Dirty Laundry, ignoring hearts “like emails from LinkedIn” on Savage Nomad, smoking lots of pot and sporting for lyrical fights, just not real ones, on Combat.

It’s all diverting, this stuff I'm doing, but it’s not meaningful, he says. He could cry about it, but then again he’s not experiencing real pain, not like he used to – an idea explored on 3 Tearz and he isn't a hypocrite or a crybaby.

So, what’s to do? There’s no point whining.

And yet…

In summary, if we think about things in Shakespearean terms, you might look at Danny Brown like Falstaff. He’s in it for the jokes, the drink, the women and the song, and he’s close enough to power to be happy – even if he isn't. It’s all easy-come, easy-go, and that's the trouble really. As such, on this album, as is the case with the story of any great fool, there is a lot of pathos.

We feel sorry for men like Danny Brown, even when they get everything they want. We look down on them, and they look down on themselves, all of us conscious that while they are riding high one moment, they are almost certain to lose it all the next.

So, while up in the saddle Danny has elicited the help of Indy Rap darling JPEGMAFIA, the aforementioned legend of hip-hop Q-Tip, the ever-exciting Run The Jewels and the sandpaper voiced Obongjayar, all of whom offer a great deal. The album sounds colourful, messy, dissonant and fun.

But it’s all just a diversion. Another trick.

As he rides off, cackling into the night, we know that he’s crying behind the wheel.

He’s got away with it again.

But for what?

For what, indeed.

Aye, there’s the rub…

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