Music review: Album gives listeners ‘something insane’
BY PARKER KLYN
The first track on Detroit rapper Danny Brown’s new album Atrocity Exhibition is titled “Downward Spiral.”
I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a more concentrated thesis for an album in its title and the opening track. “Your worst nightmare is a normal dream for me,” Brown yelps. The listener realizes he or she is in for something insane.
Brown busted onto the rap scene in 2011 with his breakthrough mixtape, “XXX.” and followed that up in 2013 with the universally acclaimed debut album “Old.”
“Old,” in particular, is a classic; it’s the only album in recent memory that combined hip-hop and electronic dance music to make a compelling sound.
It was also a project that told a compelling story of contrast between the unhinged elation of the party and the crushing lows of sobriety and withdrawal.
Brown has now followed those projects up with his newest record. Named after a song by classic post-punk pioneers Joy Division, Atrocity Exhibition is an exercise in abrasion and exhaustion.
Brown weaves tales of drug dealing and life in the slums of Detroit deftly and with more purpose than simply listing statistics or preaching.
We see it immediately on “Tell Me What I Don’t Know.” “Last night homie got killed at the liquor store / We was breaking down weed when the call got received,” is a disturbingly believable scene.
Featured artists Ab-Soul and especially Earl Sweatshirt drop the best verses of their careers on the album as well.
And Brown just spirals downward farther and farther with every song. “Credit cards separating white lines on a mirror / Roll a $100 bill, now my sinus all clear,” he yelps on “Lost.”
Then he reveals his motivations (or excuses) for his insane behavior on the incredible “Ain’t It Funny”: “Live a fast life, seen many die slowly / Unhappy when they left, so I try to seize the moment.”
The album’s centerpiece, the tribal, glitchy “When It Rain,” is simply one of the most frightening combinations of concept and music to appear in contemporary hip-hop. “When it rain, when it pour / get on the floor now,” is an intensely relatable admonition against over-indulgence.
Every track here is a vignette about the terrifying life that Brown leads. Being given drugs by your friends in a cheap attempt to show love? “Golddust.” An uncontrollable urge to spend all the money he’s ever earned, even with a daughter to support? “Pneumonia.” Multiple nights in a row at the strip club? “Dance In The Water.”
These themes would fall flat without a compelling sound to back them up. Luckily, Atrocity Exhibition delivers. The blaring horns and lurching bass of “Ain’t It Funny” are simultaneously abrasive and exhilarating. The instant-classic percussive breaks and xylophone arpeggios of “Really Doe” make the track a genuine banger.
The jazzy, ridiculously experimental nature of these beats make Atrocity Exhibition a major sonic departure from Old.
The quality that sets Danny Brown apart from other rappers the most is his voice. It’s usually a grating squawk spitting double time lyrics; it’s the most instantly recognizable voice in modern hip-hop. The best comparison would be early André 3000, turned up to 11 (Brown samples OutKast’s “B.O.B.” on “Today”).
Occasionally, Brown transitions into an effortless Freddie Gibbs-style gangsta flow that acts as the perfect complement to his normal high-energy self.
Atrocity Exhibition ends with a mission statement in the closer, “Hell For It”: “My task is to inspire your future with my past / I lived through it so you don’t have to.”
It’s a fitting, if unnecessary end to an album all about the horrors of his lifestyle.
Danny Brown’s music is a realistic portrayal of abomination, an outrageous showing of obscenity and a definitive exhibition of atrocity.