Wednesday, October 9, 2019

album review: 'uknowhatimsayin¿' by danny brown

In his series Whatever Happened To Alternative Nation, music critic Steven Hyden once identified Alice In Chains' sophomore album Dirt as a 'unrelentingly grim collection of songs about how people should never, ever shoot heroin' - and he's not wrong. That album, for as potent as it is, might be one of the most nightmarish grunge albums ever made that describes that form of drug addiction in utterly harrowing terms... and in 2016, Danny Brown followed in that tradition with Atrocity Exhibition. His previous two projects may have reinforced the garish juxtaposition between how much escapist fun drugs could be opposite the grimy, poverty-stricken life he was trying to escape, but Atrocity Exhibition went further, embracing a howling nightmare of experimental production and wild delivery that was looking to drag you into the roots of how horrifying addiction and the underlying depression could be. It's not an album I precisely love - tonally it's all over the place and not all the experimentation in production sticks the landing - but there hasn't really been anything like it in the 2010s in hip-hop, and it absolutely set a new high water mark for Danny Brown as a rapper and artist - I'd never really been a huge fan before, but Atrocity Exhibition definitely brought me on-board in a big way.

Flash forward to 2019, and Danny Brown seems to be in a very different place: he's older, a little more restrained and cleaned-up, he's got a pretty good show on VICELAND that might have its weird moments but isn't really embracing the shock in the same way his albums have. And thus I didn't really expect him to go further down the rabbit hole for his new project uknowhatimsayin¿ - sure, names like JPEGMAFIA and Run The Jewels and Thundercat and Blood Orange attached to production did suggest this was going to be weird, but likely a more controlled, focused brand of weird. Still, I was fascinated to see where Danny Brown would land, and it was hard to not be excited about that set of collaborators, so what did we get with uknowhatimsayin¿?

This is the sort of project that I wish I could say I like more than I do. Hell, I wish I could say more on it as a whole, but by about a half dozen listens through uknowhatimsayin¿ I was left with the feeling that it inhabits a pretty rigidly traditional and old-school space in hip-hop and one that doesn't really demand a lot of deeper analysis in the same way previous Danny Brown albums did. Don't get me wrong, I don't think this is a bad album: it's well-structured, Danny Brown has a lot of command over his production, some of which can be pretty interesting, the guest appearances are solid... but coming from his last few projects it's hard not to hear uknowhatimsayin¿ as a lesser entry, a little reminiscent of the comedown that CrasH Talk was for ScHoolboy Q except where he embraced mainstream conventionality, Danny Brown finds a niche that could have been imported straight from the weirder side of rap between '86 and '93.

And a huge part of this starts with Danny Brown himself. Now as someone who got accustomed to his nasal yelp very quickly and appreciated the balance between unbridled energy and downbeat lyricism that coloured his previous work, I wouldn't ask him to tone things down, which he absolutely does here. And not just with his vocal timbre, but his cadence structure as well: the flows are slower, the structure is stiffer and defiantly backwards-looking, and while critics have said it's been done so you catch everything he'll say in his bars, I think it's being charitable to a more basic style that hip-hop evolved away from around the time I was born! And look, there's nothing wrong with embracing elements of hip-hop's past and paying tribute, but if you're going for that sort of less-complicated flow now, especially as you're toning back your delivery, I think there's a fair expectation that the wordplay or lyrical detail or subtext or insight comes through to augment it, especially given how capable Danny Brown can be on even wilder sounds and flows.

And I'll be blunt: I'm just not hearing it with the content here either, a lot of which feels par for the course from Danny Brown and not really in a way that's subversive or particularly shocking. I've heard some people say that Danny Brown's rougher embrace of sex and drugs would be out of place calling back to a relatively clean age of hip-hop, especially in comparison with the gangsta rap that would follow, but on songs like 'Dirty Laundry' he's referencing songs like 'The Humpty Dance' from Digital Underground from 1990 that could be just as raunchy. Or maybe you could see subtext on how you can talk about this sort of subject matter while still remaining lyrical or old-school - that would fit with the decent Run The Jewels feature and how on 'Theme Song' and 'Savage Nomad' he disparages the younger kids who might be just as flashy now but could never match him, and hell, I might even agree with that. But when that becomes the extent of the broader subversion the deeper I dig into the writing, when you realize more focus was placed on tight individual tracks because that's really how it was in the single-driven era of old-school hip-hop, it leaves the composite album feeling a little less than the sum of its parts. Yeah, the storytelling behind some of his more wild sexual encounters on 'Dirty Laundry' is colourful and hilarious, as is the flamboyant flexing on 'Negro Spiritual' even if we didn't get a JPEGMAFIA verse, and El-P and Killer Mike land a couple solid punchlines on '3 Tearz' - had to look askance at that Ike and Tina reference from Mike, though - and I do like how thankful Danny Brown sounds on 'Best Life' for leaving all that grisly detail behind him, even if by 'Shine' and 'Combat' you get the impression it's an uneasy security he now has. Hell, 'Belly Of The Beast' is utterly absurd with its sex references, especially on that first verse... but that was built off of a freestyle he put out in 2013, and it's telling that it's not that far removed from the lyrical structures he otherwise has here. And then there's 'Shine', which has probably my favourite groove here along with Blood Orange, but Danny had to throw in the line, 'lose it all in a second, like #metoo', which given the downbeat context not only feels weirdly sympathetic to those guys also doesn't even tend to be all that accurate, given how quickly some of those 'cancelled' tend to rebound and get accepted - not a one time thing given that divorced widow line on 'Combat' too.

But fine, the album's not as deep or thematically rich as previous Danny Brown projects, at least the production will be strange or offbeat and insanely colourful, right? Well, not exactly - a lot of attention was shone on production credits from Paul White and JPEGMAFIA and even Thundercat and Flying Lotus, but more than a few credits and the executive producer credit go to Q-Tip, who seems to have arranged for Danny Brown to get some of his most steady underlying compositions. Now in theory this isn't a bad thing, again - Paul White has produced one of my favourite hip-hop albums of this decade with Open Mike Eagle in Hella Personal Film Festival, and his sample palette isn't that far removed, and a more steady groove might not be a bad thing to steady JPEGMAFIA's hand either - but I have to be blunt, I'm not wowed by many of the actual tunes we get. The gentle patter of the groove opposite the creaking strings and flutters on 'Theme Song', the warping funk gurgles and beeping that sound like they're playing off a kazoo on 'Dirty Laundry', the tinny melodic loops, spare bass strums, and the enveloping swallow of the vocal sample on 'Belly Of The Beast', the contorted guitar squeals and scratching opposite 'Savage Nomad', the more tense bass and guitar interplay on 'Negro Spiritual', and that elegant Tommy McGee sample flip on 'Best Life' are all solid... but they aren't really produced to have a ton of flair, with slower percussion and even vocal leads that aren't exactly mastered to have the same crunch or presence, where you can tell his vocals are clipped the edges of the mix. Now with Danny Brown's voice being so dynamic he'll cut through everything, but I'm still left with the feeling that this particular brand of slightly muffled, lo-fi blending is dampening the impact and don't match Brown's style - hell, even though the title track was produced by Paul White, the cadence of the dance groove sounds more fitting for Q-Tip, just with warping drum pickups.

And thus at the end... folks, I wanted to really like this, I did, but at the end I'm a lot more lukewarm on this direction and sound for Danny Brown, where it feels like across the board a step was taken to make this more reserved and less interesting. That's not expecting this to replicate XXX or Atrocity Exhibition - in the latter case, given where Danny Brown is now, it wouldn't make sense - but for as comfortable as this lane can feel for him, it's not one that plays to his strengths, or feels all that experimental. And given that I found precious few standouts on this... for me it's a very strong 6/10 and only really recommended for the diehard fans. Not a bad listen, especially if you're a fan of old-school hip-hop, but otherwise... eh, just temper your expectations, all I'm saying.

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