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Calm Danny Brown is the best Danny Brown, but there might need to be some caveats on that declaration. For one, the definition of “calm” will need to be extremely elastic. The Detroit rapper has somewhat mellowed over the last ten years, settling into as much of a groove as his biting yowl of a voice and in-your-face sense of humor will allow. He’s choosing beats that don’t quite inspire thrashing as they do enthusiastically mechanical head nodding or relentless, circular pacing.
U Know What I’m Sayin? — Brown’s latest, Q-Tip-produced album, the Detroiter’s fifth overall and first in three years — is a throwback in the same way all of his prior albums have been, but it still finds ways to add new dimension to his stylistic approach and to the traditionalist aesthetic he’s embraced for the last several years. It’s the sort of album that appeals to stodgy traditionalists and elitist hipsters, but there’s just enough springy, anti-establishment weirdness to it that it still fits into a world where Young Thug goes No. 1 on the Billboard 200 as much as it stands out.
With his most recent effort, 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition, Brown unleashed both aggression and pathos over the course of 15 diverse, stringent, nerve-rattling beats that took his snarling yelp of a flow to some pretty dark places and made for an unsettling but gripping project. It was an album that mashed up the indie sensibilities of hipster music blogs with the brash realities of street-centric battle rap, all sharp edges and broody menace. If you were a serious rap nerd or a college student who loved Joy Division, this album was made for you.
On the other hand, Q-Tip’s most recent solo work was 2009’s Kamaal The Abstract, and his most recent production catalog of late was the final A Tribe Called Quest album, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. He hasn’t been a boundary-pusher for a solid decade or more. While he plays just as joyfully with jazz, soul, R&B, and funk standards as he always did on the earliest Tribe work, stylistically, he’s the flip side of the coin Danny Brown represents. Q-Tip eases you into the groove. Brown flips you over, shakes you awake, and slaps you across the face. The chemistry between the two, naturally, rides the narrow edge in the middle, never quite settling, but maintaining a steadiness that Brown’s music hasn’t had in a while.
That’s why U Know What I’m Sayin? is less abrasive but a far weirder and more rounded experience than longtime Danny Brown fans are used to. The hallmarks of his all-in personality are still present, though. There’s zany storytelling on “Dirty Laundry,” which details Danny’s fanciful experience trading sex with an unattractive stripper for, well, laundry money. There are the delightfully unhinged punchlines (“Your song’s like Bishop Eddie Long with a thong on” from “Theme Song,” “Boss up and shake down / Get it jumpin’ like a techno breakdown” from “Combat”). And there are the sharply witty but plainspoken observations about the day-to-day necessities of both everyday life and fame, as on the title track, where Brown reminds the listener, “They say, ‘Chances gotta make a champion.'”