Review Summary: Danny Brown's dance with death
There’s a moment at the end of “Really Doe,” the fourth track on Atrocity Exhibition, which encapsulates the album’s harrowing haze particularly well. Ironically enough, it’s not delivered by Danny Brown, who spends the album’s other fourteen tracks firmly planted in the driver’s seat. This part’s delivered by Earl Sweatshirt, who stumbles into the song with a scowl as the instrumental behind him briefly trips up before regaining its footing. Sweatshirt stonewalls the cocksure, even flows of the three rappers - Brown, Ab-Soul, and Kendrick Lamar - who appear before him, opting instead for a twisty collection of off-beat rhymes and syllables placed irrespective of the beat’s rhythm. It is, for want of a more powerful word, slightly unsettling, hip-hop which does away with the soothing regularity of traditional flows and lyrics in favor of a brash, dangerously off-kilter attitude.
This is Danny Brown in a nutshell: at once wildly boastful and existentially unhinged, brief flashes of lucidity interspersed irregularly. As always, he openly embraces the vast quantities of drink, drugs, and sex thrown his way while the ugly underbelly of this hedonism lurks in his peripheral vision. Brown is at once hurtling towards death and terrified of what he might find at the end of the path he’s on. “On death row, feel like I am / You never know, one day you're here, the next you're gone / So I put it all up in these songs...” he raps on opener “Downward Spiral.” Life is great, and life is fast, and life is dangerous. Brown is here now, and he’s intimately aware of the fact that he might not be tomorrow.
Then again, that’s been Brown’s schtick for years, and anyone who purports to tell you that Atrocity Exhibition is an unprecedented step in the evolution of Danny Brown the artist isn’t properly recognizing the paranoia underlying his past work. XXX, his 2011 breakout mixtape, concludes with “30,” a song which opens with the line “Sent ya bitch a dick pic and now she need glasses” and ends with a whirlwind admission of terror and stress and depression (“The thought of no success got a nigga chasing death / Doing all these drugs in hopes of OD’ing next”). Brown’s success is in part tied to his skillful cannonballing between extreme material success and petrified self-reflection, and in that regard Atrocity Exhibition is more of the same.
If the album pushes Brown’s artistic trajectory forward, it does so through the instrumentals. Atrocity Exhibition marks the rapper’s first release on Warp Records, home to some of the most intimidating hip-hop production around, and Brown makes excellent use of the electronic arsenal available to him. Whereas XXX and 2013’s Old featured slightly more conventional beats (less a reflection on Brown and more on Fool’s Gold, the more traditional electronic/hip-hop fusion label which released the two albums), Atrocity Exhibition is a miasmic mélange of piercing synths, disquieting cymbals, and loopy sampling. If we’re going to commit the crime of comparing Danny Brown to Nirvana, if XXX was Brown’s Bleach and Old Brown’s Nevermind, Atrocity Exhibition is the acerbic response of In Utero. Before, he was driving towards the top; now that he’s got there, his mood has changed - and with it the music itself.
Brown’s voice has always been apocalyptic. He speaks with the timbre and frazzled intensity of a street-corner preacher, though Brown’s end-of-days warnings are more self-referential than those of the average fundamentalist. However, whereas the hard-nosed, minimalistic production on XXX and Old functioned more as an unadorned lectern than a full-fledged accompaniment, the lush, doomy beats on Atrocity Exhibition complement Brown’s flow exceptionally well. The album, named after a song on Joy Division’s 1980 masterpiece Closer, reflects much of the misery and claustrophobia featured on its predecessor. “Rolling Stone” is the most explicit manifestation of post-punk’s dead-eyed narcissism: its lolling guitar and bass washes draw directly from the genre’s more electronic manifestations, and its aimless lyrics see Brown unmoored.
The rest of the album plays out much like Brown’s previous releases, but the eerie production imbues everything with unprecedented power. “Tell Me What I Don’t Know” is a rehash of Old’s “25 Bucks,” but the goth-rock drum kit and synth lead lend it an air of inevitability, the desperation of the earlier track wrung out long ago. “Lost” sees Brown comparing himself to brilliant directors instead of the deceased icons of XXX’s “Die Like A Rockstar,” but its off-key trumpet and labyrinthine vocal chops contrast sharply with the latter’s more conventional hip-hop maelstrom. Most notably, standout “Pneumonia” is quintessential Brown - lots and lots of drugs and money and an unreasonably quotable one-liner about cunnilingus in “Slurp that pussy up just like lo mein” - but its hypnotic background “YUHs” and dizzying bells act as aural amphetamines, Brown geeked up on a dangerous cocktail of pride and cocaine.
In other words, Atrocity Exhibition is the Danny Brown we know and love, but even though his attitude and perspective remain largely the same as it ever was, he’s made room for further growth and corruption. It would be inaccurate to characterize the album as a step down the rabbit hole, as Brown’s been lost in Wonderland for quite some time now, but it certainly provides a new angle on the rapper’s arrogance, fear, and desolation. Brown’s followed a downward spiral for a while, but Atrocity Exhibition is farther down that spiral than ever. Death still lurks in Brown’s magnificent excess, but this time around he’s more uncomfortably aware of it.
Aside from the end of “Really Doe,” the best summary of Atrocity Exhibition comes near the middle of lead single “When It Rain.” At this point, the beat has dropped in, alarm-clock percussion giving way to uneasily quantized kicks and overwhelming bass. Brown continues to threaten violence, as he’s done the entire song, and in what passes for the chorus, he repeats the line “When it rain, when it pour, get your ass on the floor now” over and over again. Taken literally, he’s offering some helpful advice - if the guns come out, protect yourself - but, in a sense, he’s alluding to the album’s ethos: things are bad, things are scary, and, since things will continue to be bad and scary, we should ride as hard as we can till we reach the end. Atrocity Exhibition is at its core a dance with death, simultaneously testing the limits of what the human body can endure and dreading what happens once that limit is reached. The downward spiral will continue until there’s nowhere else to go.