always seemed immortal. His trilogy of critically acclaimed releases—2011’s incendiary XXX, 2013’s decadent Old and 2016’s staggering prog-rap opus, Atrocity Exhibition—found the Detroit MC repeatedly self-destructing, masquerading the references to his childhood traumas with an infinite supply of party pharmaceuticals and charisma. Every time he sounded like he was truly on the brink, he’d return, and usually messier, drunker, funnier. His music got better. He was invincible. Maybe.
It’s a relief that Brown sounds mortal on his new album, uknowhatimsayin¿. He sounds healthy, if in a high-cholesterol way. He looks it, too—watch his new talk/sketch comedy show, Danny’s House, and you’ll be presented with a nearly unrecognizable figure, complete with a malleable gut, a newly-complete set of pearly whites and an unpretentious fade. He looks like he’s about two shakes away from buying a convertible and getting a divorce.
uknowhatimsayin¿ isn’t a midlife crisis album, though. He may have cleaned up his act, but only to a point; gone are the days of pill-popping and doing lines before noon, but the 38-year-old is just as horny as ever, spending his days smoking weed and playing videogames before hitting the strip club (or maybe a Burger King bathroom, if you believe lead single “Dirty Laundry”) with his pals. Still, the album is a slower, more empathetic effort that finds Brown channelling his chaotic energy into honing his comedic craft; this is far and away his most intentionally funny record, chronicling the comic absurdism of so-called adult life in contemporary America (“I eat so many shrimp I got iodine poisoning”) just as much as he contends with his unknown future as “a demon on the hunt for the succubus.”
Reading the lyrics might not do them justice, but Brown’s multidimensional performance gives even the most seemingly incoherent lines a nuanced clarity. It also manifests in impeccable production across the board, a feat overseen and accomplished by A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip (who also serves as the record’s executive producer). Though Tip only made the beats for three tracks, they’re all highlights: the perfectly filthy, soul-sampling single “Dirty Laundry,” the sultry bass of “Best Life” and the album’s excellent free-jazz closer, “Combat,” where Tip also delivers a characteristically agile hook.
Other credits belong to a carefully curated cast of collaborators ranging from industry staples to Bruiser Brigade regulars. Sonic styles range from Flying Lotus and Thundercat’s astral jazz (“Negro Spiritual”) to chopped classical strings on a health spa-adjacent beat (“Theme Song”) to the hangover nihilism of deep web provocateur JPEGMAFIA’s leaned-out “3 Tearz” production that dazes guests Run the Jewels. The London-based, Nigeria-born Obongjayar gets two prominent features on “Belly of the Beast” and “uknowhatimsayin¿,” lending his celestial husk of a voice to great effect, juxtaposing Brown’s signature corkscrew vocals.
Still, it’s longtime collaborator Paul White that knows how to bring out the best in Brown. Throughout the midnight noir of album opener “Change Up” and the industrial fuzz of solipsistic crooner “Shine,” it’s clear that Brown and White are kindred spirits. On the latter, Brown describes the many times he nearly died during the racist War on Drugs: “Ain’t a system of design, one strike take it all,” he laments, moments after an elegiac chorus delivered by Blood Orange. “Belly of the Beast” is a particularly mysterious beat, lurching in and out of a rhythmic haze that has Brown flexing to deliver some of his funniest, most sinister lines: “I’m anemic with the ink / You’re a Stevie Wonder blink.”
While no song sounds the same, they all exude a similar meditative energy, a far cry from the manic bombast that, to this point, defined the rapper’s discography. There are no bangers on the album, but there aren’t any sleepers either; fans that just want a XXX 2 will likely be disappointed.
On the album’s superb title track—a Y2K-reminiscent downtempo groove—Brown sounds like he’s finally broken out of the cycle that once made his music so intoxicating. It’s a departure, but a vital one. “If it wasn’t for that, wouldn’t be this / Know what I’m sayin’?”