Regardless of how Danny Brown sees fit to close, you can’t say his ability to open isn’t heroic. Just pick out any Danny Brown song—let’s say “30,” from 2011’s XXX—and there he is, snatching your attention right up top just to ransom it back to you over the next three or so minutes: “Sent your bitch a dick pic, and now she need glasses.” And actually, it’s not just your attention he has urgent need of, he insists on your respect, too. Four lacerating verses into the final track on his breakthrough tape, which he released at 30, he declares he’s “the greatest rapper ever.” It’s not true but for a moment it feels exceedingly plausible.
“Combat” is another one of those instances when Brown grabs you by the scruff of the neck: “I don’t give a fuck / I could talk a cat off the back of a fish truck.” The percussion swishes. The horns bubble up and pop, as if the song were at a rolling boil. The mood is quasi-contemplative, and the raps are exhaustive: He’s after a big buck with a slim waist and a big butt, but then he’s rapping about the years he spent selling and abusing drugs, street warfare, his pitched battle against recidivism, and, oh yeah, he’s managed to rhyme “hash,” “crafts,” “math,” and somehow “circumstance” in the space of 15 seconds. He sounds staid, yet energized. Speaking to Dazed earlier this month, Brown said that working with Q-Tip—who executive produced his newest album, uknowhatimsayin¿, and lends a feature on “Combat”—breathed new life into his relationship with rap music, which remains a strange one.
As in, it’s tough to say exactly what kind of place he holds in it. In 2011, he sort of dropped onto your plate like a cartoon pork butt from Cow and Chicken—Brown, a rapper from Detroit, had chipped teeth and an intractable, self-deprecating sense of humor. And his hair. His hair was permed but proudly matted and stringy, befitting the oddball restlessness of his music. He was outre in sound and fashion, and enticing to me personally, a 19-year-old, dabbling in plenty of things for the first time. Few songs were so epochal for the college set as “Grown Up”—which made just about every 2012 year-end list—few artists’ longevity felt more tied to an electro-trap-dubstep indie lane that doesn’t really exist anymore. Brown was streetwear galaxy brain before any SoundCloud rapper could match skinny pleather jeans and a fur coat, but he had an old head’s dedication to rapping—like, rapping rapping; with internal rhyme schemes and punch lines and everything—because, well, he actually was old.
Brown also has a knack for reinvention—he really goes for it with each new album. XXX was characterized by desperation for achievement. “Die Like a Rockstar” made success a matter of his very life—he’d be more than what he was born into, or he’d be nothing at all. Overall, XXX was about the existential horror of being known to yourself and to others. Old was about the existential horror of having to get your shit together. Atrocity Exhibition was about the existential horror of being alive.
Uknowhatimsayin¿ is his fifth album, and often sounds like the soundtrack to a campy VHS porno series playing on a wall-mounted tube TV in the last video store in America, and yes this is a good thing. Brown’s voice—which resists description and thus invites weird ones—can be like a whirligig in a thunderstorm. As ever, it lightens his bleakest lyrics, giving “Dealt with so much pain that I don’t even know what feelin’ is” a certain levity. But still the desperation, the notion that his livelihood depends on this, is no longer there.
Mostly because: It really doesn’t. Brown has a talk show on Viceland now. He’s bought a new smile; his hair has been tamed into a sensible Caesar cut. He has several beats from Q-Tip the Abstract, and one from JPEGMAFIA. Uknowhatimsayin¿ has the quality of a passion project, like a group of super friends sharing a couch in a Stones Throw storeroom for an indiscriminate amount of time, and pressing the craziest stuff for release. It scans more as a labor of love than a swipe at the crown.
Don’t misunderstand: Brown is still rapping, as in rapping rapping. The one is “Savage Nomad”—it stomps in at just about the halfway point in uknowhatimsayin¿’s 33-minute running time. The guitars tear the song open, and sound almost like fire truck sirens. The keys underneath hint at the Cops theme. Trash is burning on the streets, and Brown is squeezing assonants into couplets like “I’m in that matte black ’Lac, mac under the floor mat / A weatherman it be, I predict the forecast.” There’s not really a hook to speak of: Brown lets out an unhinged laugh before diving back into the next verse. “Who you think you dealin’ wit / The flow Chinese arithmetic.” It’s a frantic backdrop, but he’s not doing much more than showing off. And there’s really nothing wrong with that.