- Danny Brown is tired of being himself. When the wild-haired Detroit rapper burst on the scene five years ago with XXX, his startling, pained delivery was a last grasp for the fame that had eluded him to that point. He got his wish. Brown quickly became the thinking man's ignorant rapper, expressing the joys of cunnilingus and adderall one minute, name dropping Arthur Lee (of Love) and Darq E Freaker the next. But his peers like Schoolboy Q and A$AP Rocky would vault past him in popularity, in part because Brown was a little bit weirder and certainly more conflicted. His depravity eventually became a caricature of itself, as did his eventual meltdown. Old, the follow-up to XXX, was a disappointing attempt to harness his manic energy for mainstream tastes. Then Brown took to Twitter with soul-bearing admissions of depression, drug addiction and loneliness. Now, Atrocity Exhibition arrives as a dark, boom-bap document of the MC's odyssey, as well as an incisive commentary on the perils of fame.
Brown begins by narrating from the depths. "Downward Spiral" rolls in with western guitar, wooden percussion and words we've heard before. He's "been in this room for three days," smoking "blunt after blunt," but this time the end is in sight: "You never know, one day you're here, the next you're gone." Brown may have said he'll "die like a rockstar," but he doesn't seem ready to pay the piper.
The UK producer Paul White, who produced most of Atrocity Exhibition, focuses on pairing Brown's grim outlook with swampy rock samples. Beyond that, Brown, like any good music nerd, reveals various obsessions in his beats and lyrics. He's an avowed fan of Moodymann and Model 500, "Get Hi" makes multiple nods to the jazz greats and the album title repurposes Joy Division's song to describe what his listeners have made him out to be. "Lost" flips a ghostly sample like Madlib or MF Doom, while "Hell For It" has Brown rapping over a sample that brings to mind early Kraftwerk.
With its hazy, by-the-numbers R&B, the Kelela-featuring "From The Ground" is largely unimpressive. Brown's at his best when using unconventional beats 99% of rappers wouldn't know what to do with. "Ain't It Funny" is a funhouse production that achieves James Chance levels of chaos, with atonal saxophones and a no wave-style rhythm section. Brown raps like he's running out of air: "Broke serving fiends / Got rich became an addict," before the crazed chorus, "Ain't it funny how it happens?" Evian Christ's beat for "Pneumonia" could be played at an experimental club night like Janus. Brooding synths lead to a breakdown built on layers of maddening snares and and a sly nod to the "Ha Dance" sample. "Dance In The Water," one of the only undiluted party songs here, has glockenspiel, a nasty bassline and a troupe of sampled backup singers.
Contradictions are what make Brown magnetic. He raps in two voices—on some songs he's a high-pitched madman, on others a jaded street poet in baritone. He can hang with the art school kids even though he's done time. He still goes through the motions with threesomes and drugs, but now he's pretty sure that it all ends badly. But whether he's rapping about stripping copper out of abandoned houses or addiction, Brown manages to wring humor and, somehow, relatability out of grim personal stories. Most of Atrocity Exhibition seems to be in the past tense. Brown has battled his demons and is relieved to still be around to tell us about it. In the past, he's rapped with the urgency of an MC taking his final shot at fame. Atrocity Exhibition details a redemptive attempt to climb out of the wreckage that ensued.
01. Downward Spiral
02. Tell Me What I Don't Know
03. Rolling Stone feat. Petite Noir
04. Really Doe feat. Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul & Earl Sweatshirt
06. Ain't It Funny
08. White Lines
10. Dance In The Water
11. From The Ground feat. Kelela
12. When It Rain
14. Get Hi feat. B-Real
15. Hell For It