Review Summary: This is the way, step inside.
I will admit, I’m a little worried for Danny Brown.
It’s a natural reaction. Upon my first listen of Atrocity Exhibition, I found it hard to think about anything besides the album’s encapsulating atmosphere. It’s dreary, and half of the beats sound like scraps from a straight-to-TV movie about a suburban Halloween gone awry. The sound of the drums are deep and loose, giving off a drug-laden industrial vibe. The lyrics are hedonistic (a sort of buzzword when it comes to Brown) and almost entirely dolled-up in overt nihilism. A little misanthropy here, a little xenophobia there. It’s odd, it’s pretty incredible, and yes, the Joy Division influence comes through in spades--more-so than simply the album title. What’s most apparent though is not the influence of Joy Division, nor is it the proposed “post-punk rap” that some have chosen to wrap the album in (it’s hard to disagree, considering the album’s consistently impressive bassline). No, the most jarring aspect of this record is the undercurrent of emotion that runs like wiry static throughout the whole damned thing.
It’s really sad, it’s really angry, there’s a song about getting high that could become a cult classic, and it’s all here in this weird, writhing package and it’s probably going to be the best album this year has to offer. And that’s not a settling; oh boy, is it far from it. Let’s be clear, there’s not a wasted moment on this record. Every song is hugely diverse from the next, whilst still maintaining a flawless cohesion. Whatever song comes next just makes sense. Even on Atrocity Exhibition’s most star-studded track, “Really Doe” (featuring the rather stacked talents of Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, and let’s not forget, Black Milk), reality rears its ugly head; rooting even the posse’s most outlandish claims to the earth. The song is something of a perfect contrast, and what follows it is a middle-section that can only be described as awesome in the most biblical sense of the word. “Ain’t It Funny”, “Golddust”, “White Lines”, “Pneumonia”, “Dance in the Water”; all warped, party-fueled fever dreams that thrust the album unto a level of creative wit with no-holds-barred insanity. The production is insane.
And, as we’ve seen on some of the recent hip-hop outings in 2016 (yes The Divine Feminine, yes Coloring Book), it’s easier than ever for artists to get lost in the weight of their own work. The production talks over them and their guest artists talk louder than all--and, in the end, it becomes hard to distinguish if the artist at the helm is the maestro of his own work, or a curator of others’. There’s no debating that on Atrocity Exhibition. Danny Brown thrives atop the scatterbrain production of each track, finding new ways to piece his flow together in the strangest of ways. Arguably the least-accessible song, the album’s opener “Downward Spiral” at times can hardly even be labeled as rap. Instead, raucous drums stumble their way into oblivion and Brown squawks incongruently, a man unhinged from too many benders and too few benzos.
But, despite the determined nature of the album’s closer, “Hell For It”, I left this album worried. Not for its lasting power or longterm appeal, nor for what others would think, but for Danny Brown as a person. What he’s given us is something that, in due time, will be remembered as a masterpiece--the album really is that good. But I don’t want to remember Danny Brown how we remember Ian Curtis; I don’t want such comparisons to pervade mortality. To kill himself would be the dour note, easily predicted and a natural extension of whatever has come forth, with all his work amounting to what? A final, artistic statement?--or perhaps, a gesture marred and controlled by the overwhelming pressure of an ultimate relief?
I don’t know, honestly. I just hope he ends up okay.