Danny Brown doesn’t make albums for the faint-of-heart. Throughout his career, Brown has pushed the limits of what one can say on a mainstream rap release, as well as the genre’s sonic boundaries. As he shifts rapidly between coked-out rampages, stoned relaxation, explicit sexual descriptions, and bleak explorations of alienation and loneliness, one wonders how long it will be before his volatile lifestyle catches up to him. Atrocity Exhibition declares that, in his 35th year, Brown is not slowing down anytime soon.
Brown’s fourth full length album was released via Twitter on Sept. 27, three days ahead of schedule because the eccentric Detroit rapper “COULDN’T WAIT ANY LONGER.” His excitement was understandable: The rapper’s recent streak of influential LPs —2011’s XXX and 2013’s Old—as well as the four excellent singles he’s dropped in recent months have set the bar sky high.
Atrocity Exhibition shatters all expectations. The album is named after a Joy Division song—immediately hinting at major themes of addiction, alienation, and death. Brown takes full advantage of the album’s 45 minutes, in 15 short tracks, stuffing more dense wordplay, explicit imagery, and stark truths into a rap album than should be possible.
A more unified project than Old, Atrocity Exhibition has only six features across four songs, and ten of the album’s fifteen tracks are produced by Paul White. White is best known for his work on Brown’s earlier projects, and a split LP with L.A. rapper Open Mike Eagle (Hella Personal Film Festival), but his work here should garner some serious attention across the genre.
The opener, “Downward Spiral” sets a dark tone for the album. White delivers a beat featuring a slide guitar reminiscent of the Breaking Bad theme and some fluttery drums sounding straight out of the jazzy Birdman soundtrack. White’s sample-heavy beats lack any correlatives in hip-hop, and, as a result, this album defies comparaison. As always, Brown fills this beat to the point of overflow with comically dark imagery, inviting listeners to marvel at his knack for rapid-fire wordplay, while gawking at the vivid self-portrait he paints.
On “Ain’t It Funny,” the album’s sixth track, White lays down one of the many fantastically bizarre beats on the album. With a pulsing bassline punctuated by erratic bursts of horns, the sound is a startling revelation on a mainstream hip-hop LP. Of course, Brown does lyrical somersaults over the unwieldy beat, rampaging through bars packed with double entendres and internal rhymes. The resulting chaos produces a uniquely grim vision of party-rap. Brown shifts unpredictably between moments of stark clarity (“It’s a living nightmare, that most of us might share / Inherited in our blood, that’s why we stuck in the mud”) and his trademark party-to-forget mentality (“So I’ma wash down all these problems with a bottle of Henny”). His outlook morphs from line to line, juxtaposing startlingly cold realizations with destructive tendency to self-medicate.
While these peaks and valleys can be a lot to take in for the casual listener, one is impressed by the lyrical urgency and emotional tenacity Brown brings to each of his songs. The oscillation between fear and awe characterizes the album’s narrative and the listening experience itself. Although Brown tackles many of the typical party-rap tropes—such as sex, drugs, alcohol—he howls his bars with such ferocious honesty that it makes for some uncomfortable social listening. In short, Atrocity Exhibition is party-rap for people who hate party-rap.
A highly experimental album which defies categorization, its complex portrait of a damaged individual solidifies Brown’s position as a simultaneously human and superhuman rap artist.
“Really Doe” (ft. Earl Sweatshirt, Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar) – Stacked posse-cut produced by J Dilla disciple, Black Milk
“Get Hi” (ft. B-Real) – Excellent change of pace slow jam, featuring a great hook from the guy from Cypress Hill