Album Review: “Atrocity Exhibition” by Danny Brown

Danny Brown rose to prominence with “XXX,” a foul-mouthed portrait of a rapper in skinny jeans set against the backdrop of a declining Detroit. Its gutter talk won over fans and critics alike, who often cite “XXX” as one of the defining albums of the Internet age. Brown pulled back on the humor and assumed the role of biographer on the icy, more mainstream “Old.” Now, Brown returns to the zany, drug-induced antics that have him regarded as not only a master storyteller, but an avant-garde auteur.

On “Atrocity Exhibition,” Brown raps of swollen jaws, narcotic withdrawal, dark nights and the darker mornings that follow. From the claustrophobic first lines of “Downward Spiral” to the trashy electro frenzy of “When It Rain,” it’s clear that Brown is throwing a rager on a sinking ship. It’s a celebrity meltdown, and like any good tabloid it’s hard to look away.

Again, Danny Brown turns to his childhood and dealer days for inspiration, criss-crossing horror vignettes of poverty and tragedy with drug-induced euphoria. Rather than telling a story, Brown pulls bits and pieces from the past to establish a gruesome mood; it’s more “XXX” than “Old.” It isn’t a change for the artist, but a progression. Brown has honed his swervy falsetto delivery to a deadly pinpoint, and it’s now backed by the most distinct beats in the game. Brown has certainly found his secret weapon in British producer Paul White.

Allegedly, $70,000 was spent here on samples, and it shows. White has crafted something that sounds straight out of a slasher film. A women wails like a ghost on “Lost;” haunted space-age keyboards form the base of “White Lines;” interspersed through it all are ambient creaks and whispers that try to convince you there’s a serial killer hiding in your closet. It complements Brown’s hysterics quite nicely.

One of the standout tracks is “Ain’t It Funny,” an absolutely apeshit foot-stomper of a song. White turns a five-second sample from Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason’s solo work into the auditory representation of a panic attack. Meanwhile, Brown raps of living fast and the imminent meltdown just beyond the horizon. The song demonstrates the powerful chemistry these two artists have, the result of which owes as much to industrial rock — artists such as “Nine Inch Nails” and “Swans” — as it does to trap and EDM.

It wouldn’t be a Danny Brown production if it didn’t have what Brown has coined “a weed smoking song.” On the penultimate track “Get Hi,” Brown takes another sabbatical away from his life problems through the power of cannabis and advises the listener do the same. It may seem like a straightforward drug song, but Brown is a rapper praised for his ability to weave contradictions throughout his work. “Get Hi” is serene and strangely melodic, but as Brown’s problems and weed tolerance build up, it feels like he’s slipping toward rock bottom in slo-mo.

The album ends on a reassurance. Brown rallies himself on “Hell for It,” candidly speaking about his motivations, personal trials and how they’ve shaped him. Finally, the artist finds salvation in his art, thus ending the latest chapter of his career. It seems Danny Brown will be all right, at least for now.

At the age of 35, Danny Brown is older than he looks. After a decade of hustling, a failed stint at Roc-A-Fella records and his ostracisation from G-Unit because of his pants, Brown only achieved widespread recognition five years ago. Yet despite the acclaim of “XXX” and the long path he took to get to that point, it still feels as though Brown has yet to fully tap into this nightmarish vision of his. If his partnership with White is any indication, he’s on the right track. It’s all up (or down) from here for that gapped-toothed hedonist.

Rating: B
Release Date: September 30, 2016

Image Courtesy of Triller Than Most