On the opening track of Danny Brown’s fifth record, unknowwhatimsayin?, he repeats the line “Never look back, I would never change up.” I’m still trying to figure out what he means, because the Detroit rapper does look and sound very different on this album. Compared to 2011’s XXX or 2013’s Old, where every other line was about drug use and thoughts of death, he sounds…well, sober. In the past, he’s exploded off each track, his comically nasal voice desperate for attention. So to hit play and hear this album start from a place of calm contemplation takes a minute to process.
Don’t get me wrong, Danny is still Danny, bitin’ down, clenchin’ teeth and knucklin’ up, and there are plenty of Bruiser Brigade moments to get fired up for here. But unknowwhatimsayin? is definitely a new direction. Perhaps it’s due to the guidance of Q-Tip, who did three beats and executive produced the whole project. This unlikely partnership reveals that Brown, despite his outlandish persona and unconventional approach to music, still draws inspiration from hip-hop’s canon.
The beats are outstanding, with JPEGMAFIA, Paul White and Flying Lotus joining Tip on the boards. This album is a grower, so give it time. I was initially thrown off by the unhurried pace and the straightforward structure of the songs (the live drums that end “Savage Nomad” are the closest we get to an outro or beat switch), but over time this sequence of songs has perfectly tunneled its way into my brain.
The slow drudge of “3 Tearz,” for example, didn’t immediately sound right for a Run the Jewels feature, but I now love how it forces El-P and Killer Mike into a rhythm that sounds fresh for them. Obongjayar’s ragged Jamaican toasting over the abstract soundscape of “Belly of the Beast” is bizarrely satisfying. Q-Tip made both singles, and they’re excellent, but don’t miss his song “Combat,” which features one of the most interesting horn samples I’ve ever heard. And you can ask Dev Del Molino, Danny raps his ass off on “Negro Spiritual!”
“I would never change up” must mean that what stays the same about Danny Brown is his refusal to stop changing.
Score: ❓❓❓❓ / 5