With dark and rumbling production matched against Danny Brown’s high and reedy voice, his last trilogy of albums have been compelling to say the least. Atrocity Exhibition, released in 2016 to great acclaim, was the darkest and most fucked-up of the three, yet in many ways also the funniest.
Brown’s surreal tendencies made his announcement that uknowhatimsayin¿ was going to be his “stand-up comedy” album easy to greet with little more than a nod. Of course it was.
So the biggest disappointment with the end product is that it just isn’t very funny. I’ve sat through it several times and not laughed, not even chuckled, not even thought “that’s really clever” once. Admittedly, as a white British guy many of the references might elude me. But I can grasp enough to know that a huge percentage of the punchlines come at the expense of women. Try “Got a foursome with four fours and I called it a twelve/One was chubby, one was ugly, wack as hell”, the already much-quoted “I ignore a whore like an email from LinkedIn”, or the apparently autobiographical “So we did the humpty hump in a Burger King bathroom/Lowkey kept it undercover/The way she slurp slurp, she’s the quicker picker upper”. Laughing yet?
Rap has such a big problem with misogyny that it’s disappointing to hear a rapper who otherwise might sound like a future standard-bearer indulge in it so plainly. Unlike Eminem or Kanye West, Danny Brown doesn’t unpack the misogyny, probe its darkness and what it reveals about the terrible insecurities of the male psyche. Brown doesn’t have any satire as smart or disturbing as “Kim” or “Gold Digger” in him, at least not on this album. He just has cheap jokes about blow jobs and ugly women that leave nothing more than a sour aftertaste.
In the current climate, when we’re finally starting to have honest conversations about the abuse of women in our still-patriarchal world, Danny Brown’s gags start to look hopelessly out of place. And he seems to know it: “Lose it all in a second, like #MeToo” he “jokes” on “Shine”. A little more introspection and a little less airing of “Dirty Laundry” might have done this album wonders. Or perhaps some funnier material would’ve just done the trick. The fact is, the jokes are all just too old-fashioned for a wannabe hip-hop pioneer.
The beats are pretty old-fashioned too, but that’s actually a good thing. Q-Tip came onboard as executive producer for this album, a man who’s earned his legend and whose presence on a project can only ever be a good thing. And he brings the retro-funk. He doesn’t produce all of the tracks, but those that he does are highlights. “Best Life” uses a sugar-sweet sample of Tommy McGee’s “Make You Happy” to bring the good vibes, and the soulfulness matches the positivity of Brown’s message, which is that like Chance the Rapper he’s living his best life. “Combat” uses a jazzy interpolation of a horn loop to great effect, and Q-Tip seems to enjoy himself so much on it he even sneaks in a guest verse (shared with Consequence).
The other producers also combine with Brown’s talents well, such as that you might believe the rapper’s wild tones could skip over just about any beat. JPEGMAFIA uses such a weird, loping beat and a Yoko Ono sample of all things on “3 Tearz” that it lures both members of Run the Jewels in to share what makes them weep. Thundercat and Flying Lotus predictably bring the deep funk on “Negro Spiritual”. But perhaps most interestingly for true fans, Paul White, the primary producer on Atrocity Exhibition, returns to push his buddy on several well-made tracks, including the title one and “Shine”.
The music is consistently entertaining, thanks to this high-calibre cast of producers, but largely forgettable. None of it leaves a deep impression like the best of XXX, Old and Atrocity Exhibition. None of it really stings like a wasp. The album’s a hoverfly.
It’s a shame, because the on-edge high-pitched warble of Brown’s flow feels so unpredictable it could go anywhere, like it could travel into wild new unimagined terrain for hip-hop. It still conceivably could. But, alas, it doesn’t here.