“I’m not popular in Detroit,” Danny Brown once told me.
The phone connection was poor, but even through a wall of static straining the conversation, the twinge of knowing satisfaction in Brown’s voice was audible. You could almost picture his lips forming a smirk as he spoke. Brown had spent the preceding 12 months strategically beating his hometown off with a stick. Popular in Detroit? Fuck that.
To be clear, Brown wanted to be loved as badly as any presidential aspirant. But his target demo was a certain self-consciously high-minded social media population, and their affection is conditional. They loved when, on his early press junkets, he would transparently signal to them that he was more than “just a rapper.” (At the time Brown talked a lot about Joy Division.) They loved when he delegated broad responsibility to a crop of IDM producers: 2013’s OLD was only tangentially a rap album. They loved when he dove tongue-first into mosh pits.
Will they still love him now? It had been easy so far to predict Brown’s next career move ball and socket, but uknowhatimsayin¿, executive produced by Q-Tip, will surprise many—not because “Shine” has Blood Orange on the hook, or because “Savage Nomad” dissolves into a percussion freakout reminiscent of Louis Armstrong’s All Stars, but because the album is so conventional. Brown’s raps are plainspoken and mournful over grime-coated beats. Is that a sanguine, ’70s-soul-indebted string sample on “Best Life”? A Native Tongues-inspired sax loop on “Theme Song”? Who is this and what he has done with the Danny Brown of four or six years ago?
Brown’s last album, Atrocity Exhibition, was as dull as the indoorsy lifestyle of a barely functioning addict itself—he couldn’t seem to think past his next line of coke. Brown has since gotten clean and reestablished contact with his inner storyteller: uknowhatimsayin¿ includes a great bit where he breaks down how to stealthily rob a high school chemistry lab. Later on, Brown raps, “I was locked up with dirty white boys, all musty/Praying for probation, hope I get lucky.” Back at their home in West Detroit, Brown’s churchgoing grandma was praying for the same thing.
Amid spiraling psych-rock guitars and oodles of reverb, Brown calls himself an “underdog” on “Change Up.” If so, he put himself in that position: The more dandyish and errantly stylized his albums became, the easier it was to forget that he’s a wonderful rapper. On uknowhatimsayin¿, Brown keeps the la-di-da bullshit to a reasonable minimum. He’s more likely to crack wise about his fellatial misadventures (“After she was done, I looked down at my penis/Like, she really didn’t mean it”) than to profess his love for Orbital.
“Savage Nomad” is strewn with dubbed-in, canned audience applause, which is pretty telltale; Brown’s pathological need for approval hasn’t fully gone away. We can deal with that later. For now,uknowhatimsayin¿ is a leap in the right direction.
With: Ashnikko and Zelooperz
Where: First Avenue
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 5
Tickets: 18+; $25: more info here