Review Summary: Welcome to Danny Brown's personal hell.
Love him or hate him, Danny Brown is one of the most undeniably unique artists in hip-hop right now. He primarily raps in a distinctive high-pitched squawk, his production fuses avant-garde experimentation with the pulse-pounding thump of EDM and he approaches topics such as drug use, sex and growing up impoverished in the inner city with unflinching honesty. His hotly anticipated second LP Atrocity Exhibition sees Brown taking his music into even an more manic, original direction.
While Brown's music has never been known for its positivity, Atrocity Exhibition is so dark that it makes his previous albums look like the musical equivalents of watching Rudy on a loop. This album is a trip through Brown's personal hell and the journey is every bit as riveting as it is distressing. The lyrics largely deal with Brown's battle with depression and the anxiety that has come with his fame, and how he fights those feelings with a surplus of drugs and casual sex. The topics Brown raps about aren't exactly groundbreaking for the hip-hop genre, but the approach to addressing them absolutely is. Brown purposely takes away the potential appeal of his behavior by going into excruciating detail about how his lifestyle is a vicious cycle of temporary, soaring highs followed by prolonged, crushing lows that he is too scared to break free from. Making a record that deals so openly with the downside of the "rockstar" lifestyle is a fascinating and welcome antithesis from the thematic exploration you see from a lot of other rappers at this point in time.
Backing up Brown's reflections on depression-induced debauchery and crippling anxiety is some of the most inventive production I've ever heard on a hip-hop record. Brown has stated in multiple interviews that Atrocity Exhibition marked the first time he had the budget to afford all of the samples he wanted to utilize in his beats and that investment pays off in a huge way. Using influences that range from post-punk ("Downward Spiral") to hardcore trance ("Ain't it Funny") to frantic industrial hip-hop (lead single "When It Rain"), Brown creates a constantly unpredictable, chaotic atmosphere that perfectly complements the album's dark subject matter.
Despite its constant genre shifts, Atrocity Exhibition remarkably never manages to lose its cohesion. It's a true testament to the depth and execution of Brown's artistic vision that the record is able to maintain a consistent, organic tone while experimenting with so many drastically different styles of music.
Brown's past two projects (2011's XXX and 2013's Old) have flirted with masterpiece status, but Atrocity Exhibition is the first time where he's actually achieved it. There's not another artist in hip-hop right now that could've made an album that explores depression and the effects of fame in such an insane, offbeat and innovative way. It might sound like a case of delusional rambling to people who are unfamiliar with Brown's work or are turned by his abrasive, over-the-top rapping style, but I believe that Atrocity Exhibition deserves to be mentioned alongside Kendrick Lamar's last two legitimate studio albums (good kid m.A.A.d city and To Pimp a Butterfly), both of Run the Jewels' albums and Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in the most important hip-hop albums of the 2010's so far conversation.