Danny Brown Is the Patron Saint of Rap Misfits

Danny Brown Is the Patron Saint of Rap Misfits

Patron Saint

Danny Brown’s past, present, and magnificently scuzzy future. 


Danny Brown tells the whole story. There are no life-altering “eureka” moments in the Detroit rapper’s anxious, pulsating music, no buzzer beaters or magic bullets. The Danny Brown experience is haphazard and treacherous, full of winding arcs, downward spirals, and frustrating self-sabotage. In his music, the cocaine burns, Lunchables are a dinner food, and the Kush has to hit like a coma to feel effective. His ability to find the hidden pleasures in misery and disappointment—in rhymes, in outbursts, in the art of storytelling—established him as one of the decade’s most original voices. He is the patron saint of tiny and desperate delights.

His 2016 album, Atrocity Exhibition, explored the voyeurism behind tragedy’s becoming his calling card and the latent exhibitionism of his continuing the act. Named after a Joy Division song about being objectified, the record was dense and harrowing, blurring the distinction between listening and gawking, empathizing and enabling. By contrast, Brown’s latest album, uknowhatimsayin¿, is breezy and at ease. No longer haunted by his demons, he lives with them, embracing his sordid past like an old war buddy rather than a tireless foe. Uninterested in universal truths or uplifting mantras, he takes pride in his singular life.

The record comes during what could superficially be seen as Brown’s reinvention. In 2018 he had a small part in the crime biopic White Boy Rick—a role that required him to cut his spiky dreadlocks and led to him taking acting classes. For health reasons, he fixed his signature tooth gap, a long-running symbol of his humble origins. This year he launched a television variety show with Vice called Danny’s House. While these changes and the resounding poise of uknowhatimsayin¿ might imply that he has gone straight, the record resists that kind of neat reading. Executive-produced by Q-Tip of a Tribe Called Quest, the sample-rich and eclectic uknowhatimsayin¿ presents change and maturity as outgrowths of the past rather than clean breaks. “It was written, but the signature not legible,” Brown raps on “3 Tearz.” Though the past is behind him, it isn’t forgotten. He’s older but unchanged.

That refusal to tidy up produces some of his richest writing yet. On “Dirty Laundry,” he revels in the gauche fun of airing unseemly secrets, like hooking up in bathroom stalls, selling crack to his dad, and his mom unknowingly contaminating his coke stash when she throws his clothes in the wash. “Fiends say it taste like soap,” he quips. Q-Tip builds the teeming beat around bouncy bass kicks and a pitter-patter of beepy synths, and Brown takes standard rap fare—drug sales, gonzo sex talk, brash threats—and sands off the glamour without draining the fun. There’s a rush as the texture of Q-tip’s production and the grit of Brown’s lyrics reinforce each other. The song’s climax, a rendezvous with a stripper that’s paid for in loose change that the stripper later uses for laundry, is set up like a punch line but feels like an ode. In his eyes, what society perceives as immorality is a resource, and she’s just as savvy as he is.

That easygoing demeanor allows him to tell stories on his terms, finding offbeat insights within his escapades. “Best Life,” another funk-drenched Q-Tip production, features a hilarious hypothetical scenario, in which one of Brown’s estranged exes returns to town and the broken relationship picks up right where it left off. “Ass fatter, looking better than ever / Talkin’ ’bout getting back together,” he raps with unabashed glee. When it comes to this old flame, he’s a shameless horndog and always has been. His version of the best life isn’t redemption; it’s clarity. Whereas his past self might have been bitter or hopeful, he now sees the arrangement exactly for what it is, judging neither his ex nor himself for their mutual indiscretion.

Throughout uknowhatimsayin¿, he’s frank about past mistakes and bad habits without moralizing. On “Savage Nomad,” an ode to the Bronx street gangs immortalized in the 1979 documentary 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s, he takes pride in his wayward path. “Fuck school, stole the scales outta chemistry class / And made it all come back like memory lapse,” he barks, linking his juvenile delinquency to his adult success. By stripping the weight from this confession, Brown makes it more informal, less cumbersome. He doesn’t want salvation; he wants to live with himself at all points on the timeline—past, present, and future.

His newfound zen is bolstered by the polish of the record. The beats are bustling and eccentric without being prickly. On the title track, longtime collaborator Paul White builds a deep house cut from dusty drums and a radiating synth riff that are accented with ghostly hums and a leisurely bass line. It sounds like a rain forest inhaling and exhaling at night, perfectly complementing Brown’s casual refrain, “Know what I’m saying?” On “Negro Spiritual,” Thundercat and Flying Lotus’s cosmic groove is free-form yet brisk, smoldering under Brown’s rhymes without feeling muted. He has always been a shrewd beat selector, but Q-Tip’s guidance is felt. Continuous with his legendary work with Tribe, the beats here are craggy yet streamlined, as layered as they are fleet.

Ultimately, uknowhatimsayin¿ feels like a quiet dismissal of the pop convention of relentless and often empty renewal. Avoiding gimmicks or self-righteousness, Brown evolves without obscuring his history. He’s comfortable but not complacent, old but not crotchety. Though there’s certainly fun in dramatic transformation, resisting the ravages of time, there’s also value in letting it unfurl.

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