Danny Brown has always been ahead of the curve. His enigmatic persona concreted by his distinct vocal deliveries, hyper aggressive (yet powerfully self-aware) drug-fuelled lyrics and subversive instrumentation often leaves him floating above many of the conventions found in modern American rap. This idea is made only more convincing by the now near legendary status of his discography, in particular the blisteringly nihilistic XXX and experimental masterpiece Atrocity Exhibition. As his career progresses, however, Danny is changing, an unequivocal factor that comes alongside maturation; the Michigan born rapper is now thirty-eight, and the status of a drugaholic party animal can’t be held forever. This call for revision has been answered in Danny’s change of physical style: the ragged haircut is replaced by a neat, short-cut trim, and the once infamous hole in his teeth has been filled.
But far more important than all this is the music he creates, and in the three years since his last album many were left wondering what this progression would sound like realised within a new release.
The answer is colourful, psychedelic, and very well produced. In a manner akin to Hybrid, a much older (and in my opinion, criminally underrated) project of Danny’s, the album utilises old-school sonic strategies to produce (unlike Hybrid) a much smoother, yet still (like Hybrid) exciting listening experience. His shortest album in years packs a witty yet wistful punch, preserving the sometimes mean/sometimes funny (always clever) lyricism of earlier projects as well as the more self-reflective cuts, whilst at the same time generating more meditative and mature mindsets.
The repeated use of old-school ideas and instrumentation – a concept very much realised in Danny’s employing of Q-Tip as an executive producer on the album – immediately brings us a Danny who is more rooted in hip-hop origins, more traditional but still explosively subversive and dynamic. While the old-school inspired sound is nothing drastically new for Danny, it seems much more meditative and mature, as opposed to the combative pushing of genre in the contemporary regarded in Hybrid.
The more relaxed approach realised in uknowhatimsayin¿ is instantly brought about in the opening track Change Up, hitting us with spacey, mysterious guitar chords and a slow tempo buzz-filled drum track. Danny’s delivery is low in register and his flow repetitive, talking in a more observing way of himself and worldly issues, he sounds more grown up and objective. The track also carries a somewhat optimist refrain of pushing through life’s troubles and refusing to ‘change up’: ‘But I still bite down, clench my teeth, knuckle up’.
Although it acts well as an opening track, there are other cuts on the track list in which these themes and ideas are presented in a more interesting way, particularly on Danny’s part. Shine, for example, has a similarly downtempo beat and low register delivery, and this track carries themes of insecurity in success despite Danny’s momentum in discography and individual status leading him to ‘shine’. His flows are punchy, efficient and interesting over the minor-chord sequence led beat, and the climax of the instrumental at the hook works extremely successfully thanks to Blood Orange’s feature; the British R&B artist sings mournfully over his own rapped hook whilst the synth-lines build around him and eventually lead to a downtempo, ascending finish.
The approach is not always reproachful, however, and there are plenty of more aggressive cuts which bring to mind Danny’s more fearsome characteristics.
Negro spiritual, for example, hosts a fantastic instrumental provided by Flying Lotus and Thundercat, the former of which creating a fascinating upbeat drum track and synth lines whilst the latter provides another of his constantly moving chromatic and jazzy basslines. The ascending nature of the bassline also contributes to the intensity of the track, as Danny frantically raps with fantastic flow about being ‘on par like Tiger with two white broads’, taking ‘three Xanax, drunk driving with a rental car’ and how he is ‘Boutta hit her with [his] best shot, like Pat Benatar’. These lines amongst many in the track are all witty and hilarious, reminding us of Danny’s superior rapping ability over any insane beat thrown his way. The song also features the notorious Jpegmafia (A.K.A. Peggy, Buttermilk Jesus, DJ Half-Court Violation, Lil World Cup) who gives us a husky delivered hook and reminding us of his versatility as a rapper as well as a producer.
Speaking of Peggy as a producer, the song 3 Tearz is another red hot take on the album, featuring an intense opening verse from Danny before rap duo Run the Jewels take the helm until the track closes. This is a bit of a shame, as Danny’s brilliant verse featuring constant witticisms, references to rappers, singers and even mythology (‘A demon on the hunt for the succubus’) seems a bit cut short by Run the Jewels doing their usual on the stuttering, jilted beat. Despite this, the duo supplies a few sucker-punch lines to somewhat makeup for this loss; I particularly enjoyed El-P’s metaphor, ‘Death is on my couch and I’m telling him jokes, stallin’ him’, and Killer Mike’s heavy rhyme section starting ‘I sip on fine wines, fine dine with dimes and nines’.
Two of the singles leading up to the album provide some of the best listening on the album, particularly Best Life with its heavily old-school sounding beat courtesy of Q-Tip and high-paced delivery from Danny about living a better life from now, as there ‘is no next life’. This kind of reflection is found in the other example, Dirty Laundry, in which Danny intelligently uses the metaphor of washing his laundry as a way of wiping the slate, moving on and cleaning up his act. His stilted flows and delivery also work to make the track interesting and satisfying sonically.
Other bangers on the album include Savage Nomad and Combat, both of which use old-school style drum loops with psychedelic instrumentals and samples layered over them. The former appears more as a rock-influenced track, however, with its wailing lead guitar solos and rhythm in the background accompanied by crashing cymbals and Danny’s famous high-register delivery. Combat sees Danny building vocally towards the end of the track towards this, but the beat acts as more of a head-bopper than a crowd mover, to a highly successful degree.
There are two tracks featuring Nigerian hailing Obongjayar, who provides a fascinating husky delivery and haunting melodies, working well on the title track with its dancey beat brilliantly complimenting his vocals. Danny’s verses get a tad repetitive on this track, however, as he repeats a phrase throughout with samey flow and delivery. Belly of the Beast works less well, with its mildly disinteresting beat not complimenting Danny’s intense and hilarious bars, which in turn act as a weird contrast to the theme suggested in Obongjayar’s chorus. Talking about how he ‘eat[s] so many shrimp I got iodine poisoning’, Danny’s bars seem out of place when Obongjayar emotionally delivers lines about how he doesn’t ‘have skin, I just shine’, or how ‘they can’t contain me, I’m free’.
Overall, the album is a brilliant reimagining of Danny Brown, with rich, psychedelic production nodding back to Danny’s old-school influences and roots. It’s short run-time contains more than enough material to please the palate of Danny Brown fans, as well as making him more appealing to a universal audience. Despite having a couple of dud tracks and moments, Danny lives up to the hype and presents us with an interesting step in a new direction that gives great promise for material to come, despite any hesitations one may worry over with the maturing of the artist.
Author’s Rating: Could have been a bit longer/10
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