The first words we got to hear from Danny Brown’s first project since 2016 were “the hybrid”. That ad-lib, delivered with Brown's now trademark strangulated yelp, kicked off advance single, ‘Dirty Laundry’. Those words refer, of course, to Brown’s 2010 debut LP of that name and the concept that he came up with to account for the stylistic leap he made from his mixtapes: namely, that he had become a new being, not a human nor alien, but a, well, hybrid. It's fitting then that a few months short of a decade later, Brown has made an album whose overall tone most resembles that of his debut.

Brown has always been a rapper who has been concerned with his own history, be that the ups and downs of his life, or the trajectory of his artistic development. Most would argue that Detroit’s finest truly arrived with 2011’s XXX, where he wrestled with the advent of turning 30, whilst recounting lurid stories of his upbringing in the “belly of the beast” of Detroit, with his now trademark juxtaposition of disturbing-yet-grounded details with cartoonish and deliriously vulgar humour. 2013’s Old split Brown’s persona down the middle across two sides of vinyl; side A, with its nods to classic hip-hop production and Brown’s more introspective vocal and lyrical mode, purportedly presented the “old Danny Brown” of his early mixtapes whilst side B went all-in on the nutso, EDM-festival-friendly, party-drug-rap that had seen him pull in a whole new wave of fans.

Of course, every party and every high has its comedown. Hard living takes a mental and physical toll. 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition was the product of that; a disorientating and disturbing look at mental disintegration that featured the most outré production yet in a career already built on Brown’s superhuman ability to wrestle the strangest of beats to the ground. Across its fifteen tracks, Atrocity Exhibition took inspiration from post-punk, industrial, psychedelic rock and even bizarro African tribalism; its stylistic jumble reflecting the mess inside Danny’s mind. Brown’s consistent go-to producer, Paul White, helmed two-thirds of the record, pushing the Detroit rapper to new heights of creativity and experimentalism. It’s arguably his masterpiece, and marked the apotheosis of the mode he had been operating in for half a decade. The question was, where could he go from there? And could album number five possibly live up to expectations?

It turns out that uknowhatimsayin¿ is entirely unconcerned with our expectations. From its throwaway title, which namechecks one of the most overused rap cliches in existence, to the cover art that looks more like a promo for Brown’s absurdist Viceland chatshow comedy vehicle, it’s clear that Brown is feeling a lot more light-hearted.

In an interview with High Snobiety earlier this year, Brown admitted he didn’t know where to go after Atrocity Exhibition; all he knew was that he couldn’t make another album like it. After an extended period of writer’s block, the breakthrough came when he enlisted Q-Tip to executive-produce. With the A Tribe Called Quest legend onboard, Brown decided to go back to basics; no grand concepts and arching narratives, just “straight rapping”, something he claims he had to re-learn to do under Q-Tip’s exacting standards.

uknowhatimsayin¿ is, without a doubt, Brown’s most straightforward and accessible release to date. With 11 tracks and a runtime of 33 minutes, the record invites repeat plays far more readily than his previous, sprawling efforts. Several tracks follow simple structures: two or three verses separated by chorus hooks, no fuss no muss. And yet, to say it’s just “straight rapping” is to sell uknowhatimsayin¿ short; there’s certainly enough going on here to keep listeners on their toes.

The production credits and features list are indication enough of that. Beyond the three tracks that Q-Tip himself produced, the rest of the tracklist features beats by Cartie Curt, Playa Haze, Flying Lotus, JPEGMAFIA and Paul White, who leaves his inimitable stamp on four of the record’s best songs. We touch on Atrocity Exhibition’s psychedelia on opener, ‘Change Up’, swampy yet mechanical blues on ‘3 Tearz’ (which doesn’t sound anything like what you’d expect from a JPEGMAFIA instrumental), and the anxiety-inducing jazz-fusion of ‘Negro Spiritual’, which features impossibly nimble basswork from FlyLo’s muse, Thundercat.

Paul White brings his A-game on two tracks featuring London-based Nigerian artist Obongjayar (aka Steven Umoh). ‘Belly of the Beast,’ with its strange backwards-sucking vocal sample, and its chorus of “I don’t have skin, I just shine” is the best advertisement for mind-altering drugs I’ve heard all year, whilst the title track is laid-back and impossibly beautiful.

Q-Tip delivers the goods on ‘Dirty Laundry’, with a beat that fits Danny Brown like a glass slipper that no other rapper would be able to get their fat feet into. The old school RnB sample on ‘Best Life’ strongly recalls ‘The Nana Song’ off The Hybrid, and gives Brown the chance to shine against a more conventional hip-hop backing. Final track, ‘Combat’ might just veer a little too closely to Mr Scruff territory, but is still evocative of A Tribe Called Quest’s hazy jazziness.

The dominant vibe on uknowhatimsayin¿ is fairly relaxed. There’s none of the EDM-influenced drug-rap of the back half of Old, but we still get some rap braggadaccio on a few tracks. After Brown dials up the aggression for ‘3 Tearz’, Killer Mike and El-P do their Run the Jewels thing. You know what to expect when these guys hop on a track: a few witty quotables, some choice cursing, and zero fucks given. Which is essentially what the track’s about: passionately not giving a fuck. Although, like the weird noises Peggy throws into the instrumental to keep things slightly off-kilter, both jewel runners go off on tangents: El-P makes a reference to Mm...FOOD at the precise moment you realise, “hey! MF DOOM would sound dope on this beat” whilst Mike takes boasting that he’s not related to the subject of his ire to colourful extremes.

On the highest energy track on here, the FlyLo-produced ‘Negro Spiritual’, Brown goes full speed to keep up with the twitchy beat that somehow seems to be perpetually tumbling upwards. Listeners hoping to get the JPEGMAFIA of ‘Baby I’m Bleeding’ trading lyrical blows with Danny may be left somewhat disappointed by the curveball of a chorus hook that the rising Baltimore rapper delivers.

‘Negro Spiritual’ and ‘Savage Nomad’ find Brown in his manic, higher-pitched mode; the latter of which underlines his conception of uknowhatimsayin¿ as his version of a “comedy album”, with his goofing off and laughing in the vocal booth featuring prominently in the crazy, disintegrating coda of the instrumental. The emphasis on comedy is evident in tracks like this one, ‘The Theme Song’, and especially ‘Dirty Laundry’ where Brown is on hilarious form.

‘Belly of the Beast’ is a spiritual successor, musically and lyrically, to classic tracks like ‘Monopoly’ and even calls back to that song’s infamous “cool ranch doritos” line with a reference to having to disperse on account of something smelling like perch. It’s vulgar as hell, but, trust me, you don’t want to be drinking a cup of coffee in front of your MacBook when you first hear it. Try explaining that at the Genius bar.

Despite the crude humour and flirtations with punchline rap, like all Danny Brown albums, there is a deep vein of seriousness running through uknowhatimsayin¿ and the album shines brightest when Brown reverts to the introspective mode that has served him so well on previous albums. Several tracks on the record delve into questions of time, experience, how the past shapes the present, and just making healthier choices.

“Cause ain’t no next life, so now I’m living my best life,” goes the chorus of album centrepiece ‘Best Life’. If you’ve seen a recent picture of Brown you know he’s being sincere. He’s no longer the skinny guy in skinny jeans with the asymmetrical haircut and asymmetrical smile; he’s filled out, got a fade, and fixed his tooth (watch the delightful video for ‘Grown Up’ for the story of how a young Danny broke it in the first place). Where in the past, living his best life would have meant eating drug sandwiches, where the bread is just more drugs, the Danny Brown of uknowhatimsayin¿ isn’t just living in the hedonism of the present moment, he’s thinking about the future.

He says it all in one of the album highlights, the Paul White-produced and Blood Orange-featuring ‘Shine’. Over the track’s mournful horns, Brown implores, “gotta get what’s mine, before I lose my mind/ like I’m running out of time, see a black man shine.” uknowhatimsayin¿ may not immediately shine as brightly as the grandly ambitious and fearlessly experimental XXX or Atrocity Exhibition, and some of its tracks and vocal hooks are a little undercooked, but Brown’s latest reveals itself more and more with each listen. The fact is this is an album by an artist who’s more comfortable in his skin and more at peace with himself than he’s ever been. If that makes his music more comfortable and less overtly challenging in turn, I’m certainly not going to begrudge him that. You know what I’m saying?