Atrocity Exhibition Album Review
Released September 27, 2016
Genre: Alternative Hip Hop, Experimental Hip Hop, Hardcore Hip Hop
Danny Brown’s path towards the ears of mainstream hip-hop fans is one of the most fascinating journeys to witness. 2011’s XXX allowed Brown to gain traction in the underground hip-hop scene, with visceral, gritty, and left-field tracks such as “Lie4” and “Die Like A Rockstar”. While The Hybrid remains Brown’s debut, XXX absolutely insane and maddening style, lyricism, and production kept Brown a singular and dynamic hip-hop figure. It wasn’t until 2013’s commercial friendly and party bangin’ Old that Brown was able to achieve mainstream appeal and success, collaborating with indie favorites Purity Ring. Now, with the entire world in his palm and EVERYONE eagerly anticipating what this unpredictable hip-hop guru will do next, Danny Brown did the next great step: go absolutely, unabashedly, and brilliantly INSANE. To preface, Danny Brown is an auteur (I know this is a cinema term, but adhere it to music for the sake of this review).
If XXX was a sample platter, Old the easy-to-digest appetizer, then Atrocity Exhibition is raw meat drenched in cold blood and served. Brown’s jarring and dynamic change of pace to this audience is an intense, bold, and brilliant career move – and captures the essence of a true artist. By coming onto the scene with his singular brand of hardcore hip-hop, and allowing mainstream audiences to easily digest his songs in a party atmosphere, Brown has single-handedly dragged his listeners and fans into his personal hell – filled with songs of pain, release, addiction, and hedonism. It’s a stunningly visceral portrait of a madman, and its intensity can only be matched by Brown’s verbose and idiosyncratic flow, striking features, dark and vicious instrumentation – I mean, what else can you expect from a hip hop album titled after a Joy Division track?
Right from the get-go, Atrocity Exhibition proves to be a unique and unorthodox hip-hop experience; the opening track “Downward Spiral” is a sludgy post-punk odyssey into twisted territory with Brown drunkenly slurring his verses over warm, hazy guitar leads and blistering electronics. The guitar reverberates and drones in the background, while the drums follow a nonsensical rhythm and merely “clang” in the background. The track is a tie-back to XXX‘s opening track and it follows a thematic formula last revisited then. A portrait of the album’s main character, in all of its ugliness, debauchery, and vitality as a sort of musical prologue to a conceptual novel of a record.
“Tell Me What I Don’t Know” is similarly dark, highlighting Brown’s drug practices (Brown grew up in Detroit during the crack epidemic of the 80s), and highlighting his keen street smarts as he wraps in a sincere and controlled demeanor – opposed to his wild and zany persona. Petite Noir makes a cameo, delivering icy vocals on “Rolling Stone”, which covers topics of isolation and contrasts Noir’s comfort in isolation opposed to Brown’s acceptance of this “downward spiral”. The album’s collab highlight “Really Doe” is a spectacular display of flow, wordplay, and lyricism. The dusty drum loop and glockenspiel sample compliment Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, and Danny’s flows incredibly well. It’s an absolute banger of a track, partly because it isn’t as self-deprecating or desolate as the album has displayed up to this point. While the other features are superb in their own right, Earl comes in and MURDERS everyone with his brutal final verse; with his unwavering delivery and brutally honest lyricism, it’s a dark, sadistic, and intimate verse that goes to show how talented Brown is at picking the right guest spots for his record.
While Brown has nailed down the thematic and conceptual elements of the record to a T, his production on here is absolutely, batshit INSANE. There’s “Ain’t It Funny”, for instance, which opens with some horrifyingly wild instrumentation thanks to some expertly crafted horn samples; and it works with its bombastic flirtation with other musical genres from all across the map. “Golddust” does this as well, opening with a post punk riff (filtered through numerous distortion effects) ; what Brown does so well is that he marriages this with some noisy guitars, and commands the track with so much control and verve. “White Lines” covers his drug use with some of the best lyrics on the record. It’s incredible how Brown can paint a picture so vividly with words highlighting absolute debauchery and indulgence. He’s able to do so while still retaining the wild elements that make him so singular, and unique.
“Pneumonia” has some demented synths with Brown rapping over his hard drug use; “Dance In The Water” combines tribal music to Brown’s formula in the best way with an absolute visceral experience as Brown details his dips into sexual deviancy. “From The Ground” has a beautiful feature from Kelela, which compliments the dark atmosphere of the track as a whole, a stunning juxtaposition especially when Brown raps in the same serious demeanor last seen on “Tell Me What I Don’t Know”. Then there’s “When It Rain”, its toy trumpet giving the track a cartoon-ish vibe, but it quickly spirals into a nightmarish odyssey; “Today” starts off with a discordant guitar lead before Brown raps quickly about his lifestyle with fame, and what to do/not do – a crash course in fame and indulgence. “Get Hi” is a smooth track, but stays lowkey in context of the album – sparse guitar leads hanging in the air with some fuzzy ambiance to back it up. The album’s closer deals on a more optimistic outlook; in an album filled with nihilistic and depressing anecdotes, this one ensures that he isn’t going to back down from the fight.
Atrocity Exhibition is a portrait of a madman, a maniac, a drug addict, a sexual deviant, and all-around hedonist. The instrumentation and production ranges all across the map, and will be one of the most unique hip-hop listens you will ever experience. Brown’s rise to fame since XXX seems like a distant memory; but given the context of Old, and now this, Brown’s work is one of the strongest discographies in hip hop, and a shining example of auteurism. If I had to compare, XXX is like Harmony Korine’s Gummo -a gritty and ugly encapsulation of a town long forgotten; Old would be like Spring Breakers – a shiny, audience friendly contemplation on the corruption of youth in 2010s era America.
Brown is back in the grit and grime last visited on XXX, leaving the polished party bangers behind and confronting the harsh realities and destructive demons inside of him – the feelings and habits that not everyone wants to recognize. If anything, Danny Brown knows how to capture the mindset of a maniac, and allow us to see another one’s perspective without losing what made him so special in the first place. To deliver this perspective with gritty, brutal, and visceral flair – that’s an auteur trademark. It’s a tough feat to say the least, but someone’s gotta do it. And this isn’t the sound of someone gone mad, it’s the sound of a genius operating within the confines of a medium that can no longer contain his brilliance or audacity to keep the genre moving forward. His legacy is practically written already.
PRETTY NEAT MUSIC
FAV TRACKS: Downward Spiral, Tell Me What I Don’t Know, Rolling Stone, Really Doe (feat. Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, & Earl Sweatshirt), Lost, Ain’t It Funny, Golddust, White Lines, Pneumonia, Dance In The Water, When It Rain, Hell For It
LEAST FAV TRACK: Get Hi