As always, Danny Brown is ready for a change. The Detroit rapper’s career has been defined by the kind of stylistic sea changes that might swallow a lesser rapper whole. The dark humor and raw honesty of projects like 2013’s XXX and 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition are only matched by Brown’s expansive music tastes and unique voice. Joy Division songs and St. Vincent albums may serve as influences, but Brown’s hard-nosed rapping is the barbed wire holding it all together.
The rapper has reined things in even further on the road to his fifth studio album uknowhatimsayin¿. He cut his hair down to a fade and fixed his trademark broken teeth. The album—executive produced by legendary rapper-producer Q-Tip—features some of his least abrasive rapping yet. Brown’s music hasn’t become any less weird or introspective, but it’s been whittled down to the essential elements, ditching the high concepts for something a little more accessible: “Just rap,” he explains. “Dope beats and dope rhymes.”
“I hate it when people are describing someone’s music and they just be like ‘you just don’t get it,’” he adds. “There’s nothing to get; it’s not rocket science.” Inspired by his love for stand-up comedy, uknowhatimsayin¿ is a loose album built around vignettes that stick to the ear. “Dirty Laundry” is a song where Brown airs out sexcapades in Burger King bathrooms over a sputtering breakbeat from Q-Tip. Both “Best Life” and “3 Tearz” turn morbid situations into madcap skits fit for Liquid Television. It’s the kind of album that could only be made after finding your way out of a downward spiral.
With uknowhatimsayin¿ out today, read our conversation with Danny Brown below.
Your new album is called uknowhatimsayin¿ Where did that name come from?
When you look at ‘90s hip-hop, there were a lot of people who said “you know what I mean?” But at the same time, it was something regional. Out here in NY, y’all say “you know what I mean?” In the south, they might say “you know what I’m talmbout?” You might go to the West Coast and they say “you know what I’m sayin’,” you know what I’m sayin’? There’s something about that that stuck out to me. I also got it from a podcast called Your Mom’s House. They would do all these compilations of black people saying “you know what I’m sayin’?” and try to figure out who says it the most. I think that Kenyon Martin said it like 30 times in one minute or some shit.
It’s been three years since your last album Atrocity Exhibition. Did you feel any pressure to follow up the album quicker than you wanted to?
Not really. Somebody like Q-Tip works at his own pace. You can’t rush him. I let the music make itself because I’ve seen people jump the gun. Plus, I feel like if I’m not creating, I’m discovering. You gotta live life a little bit instead of constantly trying to be a rapper, you know what I’m sayin’?
Q-Tip executive produced uknowhatimsayin¿. How did your relationship begin?
It was all him [points to manager Dart Parker]. I can’t take no credit for that. He’s always been a fan of my stuff, I guess. The first time we met, we just talked for hours and hours about music. Tip had mentioned that he’d wanted me to get back to the “Greatest Rapper Ever” era and stuff like that. The first thing I thought was “shit man, that’s like 10 years old.” I had to go back and damn near relearn how to rap.
You also have a relationship with Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest. Is it true that he bought you your first laptop?
Well, he wanted to work with me. I was using my girl’s computer at the time, and he would email me things and I’d have to wait until my girl got back with her computer [to work on them]. This was around the time I was making The Hybrid in 2008 or 2009. He was like, “You don’t have your own computer? What’s your address?” Next thing I know, I have a MacBook in the mail. That shit was so tight. It changed everything. I was able to work on music way more and it just geeked me up. It motivated me to actually do it.
How does it feel realizing that you’ve been in the game for almost 10 years?
I didn’t wanna take that long. That’s just when I broke out. [Laughs] I feel like I’m coming full circle in life and with this project in particular. I just really like to rap, man. I don’t even think about it that hard. I take my time off and recalibrate. I like for people to miss me. I think if you can make it 10 years doing anything, your spot gotta be solidified at that point. It’s more of a marathon than a sprint. I don’t like rushing through things. Shit changes so much every day. If you try to chase rap trends every day, you’ll lose your mind. It does get weird when people come up to me and say “I used to listen to you in high school” and they be 30. Like goddamn, how old am I?
It’s more of a rap superhero thing, like when 50 Cent first came out. Or JAY-Z or Eminem. They almost didn’t feel like real people when they came out. I’m just such a normal person, but I don’t look normal. I wanted to be more relatable. It was hard to figure out what to rap about at first; everything was either gangsta shit or club songs. I couldn’t fit into none of that, really. I had to wait my turn and figure it out.
A lot of it was also toning down my voice, too. It’s not as high-pitched on uknowhatimsayin? as it is across my other projects. That’s part of the reason why I call this my cleanest project. “Negro Spiritual” is probably the highest my voice goes, to be honest. Working with Thundercat on that song was a blast. He’s so fucking funny, man. He and Zack Fox are just too much. Whenever we’re together, it’s just three motherfuckers screaming and making loud noises. I can’t stop laughing.
You gotta live life a little bit instead of constantly trying to be a rapper, you know what I’m sayin’?
When was the last time you saw the two of them?
About a month ago. I went and did the new season of The Eric Andre Show and the two of them were up there too, so we went to go eat and get drunk and hang out all night. We were getting on the Uber driver’s nerves, for sure.
Speaking of comedians, uknowhatimsayin? feels much looser and, dare I say, more fun than your previous albums. How did it feel coming into this project with no overarching concept after making three in a row that did?
I just kinda got over concept albums in rap. Is the music good or not? You don’t need to put the tracklist backwards or anything, you know what I’m sayin? Just rap—dope beats and dope rhymes. I hate it when people are describing someone’s music and they be like, “You just don’t get it.” There’s nothing to get; it’s not rocket science. Let me simplify this shit for y’all, then. No one’s ever gonna beat [The Streets’] A Grand Don’t Come For Free. [Laughs] Make songs, man.
I also felt that, after three albums, I was bumming people out. I didn’t wanna be a Debbie Downer with this album. I’m at a different point in my life. People talkin about “I like the old Danny with the broken tooth.” Like, what the fuck is wrong with you, man? [Laughs] Only a weirdo would think like that.
Who was the first stand-up comedian that you fell in love with?
My dad used to have a lot of comedy albums laying around, but I think Richard Pryor was the first one I gravitated toward. Martin Lawrence’s Talkin’ Shit tape was the first one that I actually knew jokes from, though.
Is there any particular comedian that inspired your approach to “being funny” on this album?
Joey Diaz. If you listen to it, there’s so many references to uncle Joey on there, I swear. “Dirty Laundry” and “Savage Nomad” are almost like tributes to him. He used to say, “Who do you think you’re dealing with, cocksucker?” so I started damn near every verse on this album with “Who you think you’re dealing with?”
How important is comedy to you?
Comedy’s been a part of my life since rap was, ya know? It all goes hand-in-hand. I remember back when I was in school and I would tell people that I wanted to be a rapper and shit and them motherfuckers would laugh at me. From then on, I just said I wanted to be a comedian. Until one day, my teacher told me to tell a joke and I froze up. [Laughs] My 5th Grade teacher told me I should stick to rap and was adamant about it, so shout out to Ms. Capen. She was my first A&R! Any school program she could put me in to rap, she’d put me in to rap. I’m probably a rapper because of Ms. Capen, she really pushed me and told me that I had a talent that I shouldn’t let go to waste.
Our high school band teacher came to our class to pick people for the band. He came in, asked who wanted to be in band, and of course, everyone raised their hand. He just went and picked whoever he felt like picking, no process or nothing. There was only room for about 20 kids and he didn’t pick me; I was so heartbroken. Ms. Capen wrote a whole letter to this nigga begging him to take on one more student and gave it to me to bring to him. There weren’t even enough instruments, so I had to share a trumpet with another dude.
Band changed my life. If I didn’t go to band, who knows where I would’ve ended up. By the time I was in 6th Grade, I was all about music. By 7th Grade, I was already starting to write raps and record them with instrumentals on a karaoke machine and shit. That was her whole swag; whatever we were all into, she made sure to push that on us in school. She’s probably the best teacher I ever had in my life. She was almost like a mother to me, I swear.
Do you think comedy or rap is more effective at conveying a message?
Definitely comedy. You got somebody like a [George] Carlin. If Carlin was still around, he’d fuck around and be president. Comedians aren’t all that far removed from being politicians, in a lotta ways. Some of them, anyway—others just hump stools and do weird shit. Rappers and comedians are both capable of putting forth some really dark depressing shit but making sure that you have a good time in the process. That’s something I really strive for in my music. Regardless of what the topic is, I just want it to sound good. Something like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, which sounds good but he’s also talking some real shit.
I just kinda got over concept albums in rap. Is the music good or not? Just rap—dope beats and dope rhymes
As showstopping as Q-Tip is, you have a very special chemistry with producer Paul White. How would you describe your relationship?
Paul just did something that a lot of producers don’t do: he sent me his entire catalog. Most of the Paul White beats I’ve been rapping on are 10 years old. I think the beat for “Belly of The Beast” is about eight years old. Every time I start a new album, I just go back into the Paul files. And on top of that, he’ll send me new beats for every album, too. I think “uknowhatimsayin¿” is a new beat. I’ve been working with him for so long that I just feel comfortable over his beats. I actually have one of his beats in my head right now. We’ve probably worked in the studio once together, but that’s just a testament to how we gel.
Aside from fellow Bruiser Brigade member ZelooperZ, you’re bringing Ashnikko on tour with you. What drew you to her music?
Because she’s funny as fuck. When I first heard her, I could tell that somebody was overlooking something because this shit should’ve been cracking. If she wasn’t as funny and goofy as she is, we probably wouldn’t work out like that. But it turned out to be a perfect match and I wanted to give her the chance to play some songs on my tour.
What’s your music discovery process like?
My algorithm on YouTube been so crazy lately. They just be finding fire shit for me. After years and years of listening to music, YouTube has become like an A&R for me. I’ve been listening to this album called Jinx by a group called Crumb recently. So good. How come nobody ever told me about this?
Otherwise, I’m gettin’ older, man. Some stuff don’t gravitate toward me like it used to. ZelooperZ puts me up on a lot of shit, too. I just don’t wanna get left behind, ya know? Not tryna be that old dude who doesn’t know to send an email. I’m into tech more than anything. That and the video games keep me young.
JPEGMAFIA, Standing On The Corner, and Obongjayar are featured on this album. How important is it to you to give emerging artists a platform?
I went through the same shit of being overlooked and people not appreciating my art. I just help people out because I happen to like their music. It’s good karma for me, on top of helping the homies out. The conversations I have with Warp always lead to, “What is Danny Brown’s universe?” I’m not bringing in people who don’t have nothin’ to do with my universe. A lot of times, rappers be tryna reach other fan bases or whatever. I’m not about to make a song with somebody whose music I don’t like. You can definitely tell when rappers are a fan of each other because it comes through on the song. Otherwise, it just sounds phoned in. That shit sounds like work. Meanwhile, we’re over here making music because we have fun together.