Danny Brown has been treading the line between mainstream rap star and critical underground darling for half a decade now, equally at home at appearing on posse cuts with the likes of Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky (1 Train) as he is with Das Racist and Despot (The Last Huzzah Remix). His last two records, XXX (2011) and Old (2013), were divided into two distinct halves; one side covered Brown’s upbringing in Detroit and past as a crack dealer; the other consisted of songs that were better suited for Brown’s high-octane live shows. To quote Brown himself describing Old, ‘Side A is real, that’s the album. Side B is the performance piece.’ This approach can still be observed to an extent on Atrocity Exhibition, but it’s clear that the lines are starting to become blurred, with even Brown himself, unsure what is real and what is performance.
The title of this latest offering refers to the Joy Division song off their 1980 album Closer: Ian Curtis’ lyrics offer a pretty accurate summation of Atrocity Exhibition the album’s central theme: 'Asylums with doors open wide/Where people had paid to see inside/For entertainment they watch his body twist/Behind his eyes he says, “I still exist.”’ Part of Danny Brown’s charm has always been his oversized and bizarre persona, but performing in this way has clearly brought with it a worry, are people more interested in the ‘Danny Brown’ character or the ‘Danny Brown’ music? On opener Downward Spiral, Brown yells ‘everybody says you’ve got a lot to be proud of’, dripping with sarcasm over a dirge of guitar feedback and scattershot drums. Producer Paul White offers the perfect companion to Brown’s depression with a series of claustrophobic beats that make up ten of the album’s 15 tracks.
One thing that anyone who has listened to Danny Brown knows is that he takes a lot of drugs. Documenting his substance-fuelled exploits is at least part of the reason for his success. Atrocity Exhibition signals a shift from Brown rapping in a way only previously hinting about narcotics mistreatment, to a much more grim insight into the lifestyle. The verses on Ain’t It Funny paints a bleak portrait of Brown’s problems with addiction, and captures perfectly his fear of a possible future: ‘Might need rehab/But to me that shit pussy/Pray for me y’all/Cos I don’t know what coming to me.’ The chorus shifts to directly address the listener with undisguised aggression, daring us to make light of his problems as we have in the past. You can’t help but feel personally implicated for bringing him to this point. Whilst this album is incredibly powerful as an artistic statement, and offers further evidence of Brown’s unique talent, it’s not an album that anyone could describe as fun; a front to back listen is an exhausting experience.
If there’s any joy to be found in Atrocity Exhibition it’s in Brown’s rapping. Lyrically, Danny Brown has never been better than he is here on this album. With almost no features and no extended instrumental breaks, Brown’s rapping is almost constant. He consistently finds new ways to tread old ground, whether its life as a drug dealer (‘Street smart, PhD/Dropped out for a slinging degree’) on Tell Me What I Don’t Know, or casual drugs and sex (‘I be on the chemicals/She be on my testicles/Poke her with my tentacle then put her on my schedule’) on Really Doe. That track, featuring Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt trading verses with Brown, is the most immediately enjoyable on the album, simply because it’s all too rare nowadays to hear guys at the top of their game competing on the same track together (special mention for Earl who definitely wins this round).
Its clear that, unlike in his previous records, Danny Brown has given no thought to what his audience might enjoy, or what might play well at live shows. For that reason Atrocity Exhibition might be less palatable to casual Danny Brown fans than his earlier work. For those willing to stick with it however, Atrocity Exhibition stands as one of the most compelling rap albums this year, a brutal look at addiction and depression that reveals further depth through repeated listens.
Words: Nick Bedingfield