The power of Hemingway’s famous 6-word fiction miniature “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” lies in the unspoken parts, the gaps that the reader is left to fill in. Detroit rapper Danny Brown one-ups Hemingway at his own game on his fifth studio album uknowhatimsayin¿, a 33-minute slideshow of tiny yet engrossing vignettes that are almost as hilarious as they are bleak. “Stone Temple Pilot crashed into the wall/ While listening to Wu-Tang and rubbing on his balls” reveals only an ending. “I’m in that matte black ‘Lac, strap under the floor mat,” a staccato line that Brown hacks up like a hairball, reveals only a beginning. These vignette are shards—preposterous sex bars, slapstick punchlines, and unflinching anecdotes from his extraordinary life—that work as discrete scenes and don’t need to be pieced together to present a dismal portrait of inner-city Detroit, and the nihilistic urban cavalier who has spent untold years selling drugs, abusing drugs, and cheating death.
Of course, Brown has been doing all this since his 2011 breakout album XXX. What’s changed? He’s 38 now, healthy, accomplished, and beloved. He hosts his own comedy talk show on Viceland. He sheared his violently asymmetrical haircut and repaired his comically chipped front teeth. On uknowhatimsayin¿, Brown’s occasional references to this new, middle-aged phase of his life produce his lamest flexes (“Season tickets for the Pistons”) and tamest words of advice. The album’s terra firma isn’t success—it’s Q-Tip and Paul White’s surreal, immersive production, which establishes a sense of uniformity while retaining the kind of playful spirit that allows for spontaneous drum solos and disembodied A$AP Ferg ad-libs. In this environment, Brown returns to his “chirp phone” days, eagerly regaling listeners and processing his emotional scars all at once.
Self-deprecation is the hallmark of Brown’s storytelling style. He specializes in reverse humblebrags, wherein boasts are Trojan horses that carry some unflattering description or dark glimpse into his mental state. Sometimes they’re light-hearted (“The Henny got me wetter than whale piss”; “Kush stanking like it broke the wind”). Sometimes they’re heavy (“My resume is killa, bitch/Dealt with so much pain that I don’t even know what feeling is”). Sometimes they’re both (“Maniac off Xanny bars/Sack like Santa Claus”). Brown has not made good on his promise to tone down his traditionally lurid, macabre descriptions of sex. “Dirty Laundry” is a literal laundry list of his wildest public sex escapades; on “Belly On The Beast,” he claims that “Your bitch like a leech on my scrotum”; on “Negro Spiritual,” he fires off a salvo of vivid similes, like “ass like centaur,” “pussy slippery like a winter road,” and “birds on me like scarecrow.” “People think my life is just non-stop orgies with crackheads,” he said in a 2012 interview with The Fader. “And it kind of is.”
The only area where Brown is unwilling to poke fun at himself is his rapping ability. Ever since he was a kid, all he’s ever wanted to be was a rapping-ass rapper. He led off his debut album The Hybrid with a song called “Greatest Rapper Ever.” uknowhatimsayin¿ reaffirms Brown’s identity as a classicist, albeit one who sounds like a futuristic mix between a duck and a cat. It’s not just the way his innate sense of humor evaporates when he delivers lines like, “It’s quite simple, I’m mental, all over instrumentals/ Detrimental to health, lyrics is quintessential” and “I could talk a cat off the back of a fish truck.” It’s bringing on Q-Tip as executive producer, it’s the references to Digital Underground, No Limit rapper Mr. Serv-On, and the late ‘70s Bronx gang the Savage Nomads, it’s the way his spare choruses function as necessary evils, bridges from one verse to the next.
uknowhatimsayin¿ succeeds as a kind of high-wire act that balances Brown’s folk hero status against his documentarian sensibilities, tragedy against comedy, bluster against self-mockery. It’s shorter than his previous albums, and also lean in a way that few other rappers could replicate. Five albums in, he remains a singular talent who only needs a few short words to tell a good story.