Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition
At 35, Danny Brown is one of the oldest rappers in the game right now, but on his latest record Atrocity Exhibition he proves to be more dexterous, versatile and energetic than most of his peers. He fluently and effortlessly raps over beats that are as varied and experimental as anything you’ll hear in 2016 – one minute you’ve got swamp-rock swag (“Downward Spiral”), the next you’ll hear what sounds like a marching band backing Nine Inch Nails (“Ain’t it Funny”).
Danny Brown has released a bunch of material since first emerging in the rap scene in the mid 2000s, but it was not until his 2011 album XXX (released a couple of months after his 30th birthday) that the rap world begun to take serious notice of the Detroit oddball.
XXX remains one of the most playful and experimental hip hop mixtapes of recent memory. Notably, the release recently charted at #3 on Pitchfork’s 50 Best Rap Mixtapes of the Millenium list – worthy praise for such a unique, phenomenal record. XXX is jaunty, minimal and raucous, with Danny Brown’s personality truly flourishing. He fronts those sparse, bizarre beats with his unique, ever-shifting personality, oscillating from party-wild to introspective in a heartbeat.
In 2014, Danny Brown followed XXX with the equally brilliant Old. Both Old and XXX are similar in concept and style, with these releases each dealing with notions of aging in the young person’s world of hip hop. On Old, the balance between Danny Brown’s frenzied party state and his world of introspection is perfectly balanced, with the record split almost exactly in half. The “new” Danny Brown is aged, more adult, retrospective in style and subtle, as showcased brilliantly on tracks like “Torture”, “Gremlins” and “Lonely”. The “old” Danny Brown emerges predominantly on that album’s second half and it is he who brings these nasty, up-all-night molly-popping bangers like “Dip”, “Handstand” and “Way Up Here” – each assured festival favourites and exemplars of the manic side of Danny Brown's personality.
But for his latest, Atrocity Exhibition, quite a bit has changed. Firstly and most importantly, Danny recently signed with Warp, joining the ranks of some of the most respected names in electronic music like Oneohtrix Point Never, Autechre and Brian Eno. The electronic influence a label like Warp has had on the overall sound and feel of a rap album like Atrocity Exhibition cannot be underestimated and it goes without saying Danny Brown is much better for it. Not only does this label change further prove his dexterity as a rapper – the dude can spit over literally anything – but it shows his cunning as a tastemaker, someone with the right ear for new sounds. The beats for Atrocity Exhibition are that good that I’d venture almost into hyperbole and say you’d be hard-pressed to find a better bunch of rap instrumentals this year – maybe even this decade.
From the opening seconds of first track “Downward Spiral”, it is evident that you have entered a Danny Brown record. By now, his high-pitched squeal has become instantly recognisable to fans and detesters alike. Recurring themes of depression and drug abuse are especially pronounced here, with Danny on full-tilt zany mode from the get-go. The beat for “Downward Spiral” is easily one of the best beats on the record, the dusty slide guitar and rollicking swing and swag of the drums sounding like a lost Josh Homme cut.
What follows is a very short but nonetheless powerful track that plays as one of the most striking moments on Atrocity Exhibition. “Tell Me What I Don’t Know” shifts to Danny in full bipolar mode – his vocal delivery here is tonally opposite from what came before (so much so that on first listen I had to check if it was actually him). The oscillating shifts in vocal delivery and tone define much of Danny Brown’s work, but never before has it been so pronounced as in these opening two tracks.
Much of Atrocity Exhibition is rooted in the gloom of depression, though it is a bleakness exasperated by psychedelics. The record is as colourful and dangerous as an A4 sheet of LSD – shifting violently and unpredictably across a spectrum of moods and ideas without warning. The record exists in the same kind of sick, surreal world of J.G. Ballard, author of the album’s namesake as well as other great literature like Crash and Cocaine Nights. Undoubtedly, Ballard would have appreciated Danny Brown’s frenetic, surrealist expositions and his unique utterances on the American Dream.
For a healthy dose of bleak surrealism, look no further than “Ain’t it Funny” – one of the most foul, nauseating, brilliant and experimental hip hop tracks I’ve ever heard. Seriously, EVERYTHING SHOULD BE IN CAPS FOR THIS TRACK BECAUSE IT IS SO FUCKING HUGE. “Ain’t it Funny” emerges suddenly and loudly following barely a moment’s silence from “Lost”, all horns and rollicking beats, Danny spitting nonsense fire bars like a deranged lunatic. Seriously though, this beat is industrial as fuck, with interesting changes throughout – it’s safe to say that I’ve never heard anything quite like it in my life. The track is a romp stomping, balls-to-the-walls, headache-inducing, k-hole nightmare – all in the best possible way.
The following track “Golddust” follows on a similar bent, and it is the one track which reminded me of Danny Brown’s proclamation that Atrocity Exhibition was influenced by, of all bands, System of a Down. It has a throbbing guitar and drum that can only be described as proto-metal, the song sampling psych/krautrock pioneers Embryo’s track “People From out the Space” from their 1970 album Opal. Another truly bizarre sample source, for sure.
Elsewhere, Danny Brown enlists the help of fellow hip hop idols Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt, for the mind-melting posse-cut “Really Doe”. Over a haunting beat of glockenspiel and sparsely peppered bass, the three rappers deliver some of the best bars spat all year. Naturally, it is Kendrick Lamar who steals the show – delivering not only “Really Doe”’s earwormy hook (in harmony, no less), but also the track’s winning guest verse. It is something K Lamar has become renowned for, these days, and any verse from the star should be welcomed with open arms. Earl Sweatshirt delivers some of his hardest bars, too, closing out the track with his particularly baritone braggadocio. Really though, “Really Doe” is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime posse-cut that is super rare these days, comparable in style only to other choice 2010s posse bangers like “1 Train”, “Monster” and “Piñata”.
Speaking of once-in-a-lifetime, another Atrocity Exhibition highlight is the Talking Heads-influenced “Dance in the Water”. The beat is a wonderfully off-kilter slice of tribal pop that’s instantly danceable, perhaps one of the closest things to a pop single apparent on Atrocity Exhibition. Lyrically, the metaphor of “dance in the water / and not get wet” suggests Danny Brown’s depiction of fame and/or drug abuse. He wants to dip his toes, but not become fully immersed, or else suffer the consequences.
It is this overarching theme of anxiety and trepidation in the face of fame that connects the wildly oscillating edges of Atrocity Exhibition, gluing an otherwise unwieldy affair into something that is grounded and singular. It is Danny Brown’s most astonishing and challenging release to date, and it is an album that will cement his name as one of the great performers of our time.