Some male rappers have deep voices, like Dr. Dre. Others have higher, more nasal voices, like Kendrick Lamar. Only one rapper has been able to find success with an even higher voice, one that sounds like a chihuahua yelping at a squirrel in the middle of the night. That rapper is Danny Brown.
Brown is an outlier in the music industry. His last LP, Atrocity Exhibition, was one of the best rap albums of 2016 according to many publications. It’s hard to explain why it worked so well. It combined the rapper’s grating voice with beats inspired by Joy Division and Detroit techno music. His lyrics addressed depression, drug use, and the desensitizing effect of growing up around violence. The combination of these elements was shocking, yet endlessly compelling.
Fans couldn’t get enough of this dark aesthetic. So, when he announced his colorful follow-up LP, uknowhatimsayin¿, some fans were hesitant. It was being produced by stalwarts like Q-Tip and Run the Jewels, known for creating mainstream, accessible songs. In interviews, Brown mentioned how he had been inspired by stand-up comedy. How could this album match its predecessor’s grittiness? Was Danny Brown finally selling out?
uknowhatimsayin¿ is certainly different than Atrocity Exhibition. There are fewer nightmarish soundscapes and more upbeat songs based on humor and storytelling. Stubborn fans might be disappointed, but they should listen anyway. Most of his new songs go beyond the bleak, cynical outlook of previous albums. Brown is able to really be himself and give more color to his personality. Now, he is more hopeful, yet still struggling to keep moving forward.
On “Best Life,” he juggles with the listener’s expectations, starting out with a bright soul sample from Tommy McGee. Then, the sample pivots to a more tense sound, mimicking Brown’s paranoia: “War on drugs was a chess game/Was a pawn, guns drawn on my front lawn.” Growing up, Brown was sure that he would end up on the road to “death or [a] jail house.” Now, however, he has grown wiser. The song pivots again, and Brown stoically affirms “Cause ain't no next life, so now I'm tryna live my best life.” Brown has emerged from the downward spiral—a song from Atrocity Exhibition—of depression and violence. Now, he can focus on living in the present rather than being overwhelmed by it.
It wasn’t easy for Brown to make these pivots. On the aptly titled “Change Up,” Brown explains his uncertainty: “Mind of a master, blood of a slave/Heart of a king, stuck in between/The devil and an angel on my shoulder when I speak.” He feels typecast as a certain type of performer. While society tries to force labels on Brown, he struggles to be his own master when it comes to making music.
The juxtaposition between Brown’s past and his present is at the center of the album. He has more confidence than he did in his past, but he is still looking over his shoulder. On “Shine,” he raps, “gotta get mine/before I lose my mind/like I’m runnin outta time.” He is always only one step away from depression and death. While he no longer lets these thoughts control him, they still linger at the edges of his mind and his music.
Throughout uknowhatimsayin¿, Danny Brown affirms people who believe in progress. On a musical level, he refuses to be pigeonholed into making “edgy” rap. Brown’s choices result in production and lyrics that, while still abrasive, are much lighter and more fun than his previous records. On a personal level, too, Brown refuses to dwell on his past. Although his difficult history will always be a part of him, he is able to grow and forge new paths regardless.
It is making music that helps him reach this hopeful state. On “Best Life,” he raps, “Everyday another episode/I’m just tryna hear the beat like a stethoscope.” As long as Danny Brown keeps trying to find that “beat,” we can rest assured he will keep making exciting, challenging music.