“Asylums with doors open wide / Where people had paid to see inside….”
The opening lines to Joy Division’s “Atrocity Exhibition” (the inspiration for this album of the same name) elicit a sinister freak show, touching on the idea that audiences feed on pain and suffering. It’s a fitting introduction to Danny Brown, a Detroit rapper who has become a kind of dark horse in the rap industry, describing scenes of poverty-stricken neighborhoods as a walking nightmare, rife with escapist drug use and Wonderbread bought with food stamps.
He’s keenly aware of how his struggle — and the struggle of Black Americans more broadly — has become a kind of lurid fascination for the largely white audiences of rap. The title is also particularly fitting for Brown himself, a man often noted for his quirks: gap toothed, high-pitched, crazed hair and a penchant for extraordinary drug use.
But to define Brown by those surface-level issues would be to dismiss his far more interesting quirks, namely the huge breadth of interests and inspirations which he brings to his projects. If you have ever heard a Danny Brown song before, the notion that the Larry David sitcom “Curb Your Enthusiasm” was on his TV while writing it is wonderfully perplexing. Such eclectic taste helps explain the depth of his lyricism. Brown can juggle between talk of heavy drug use, intensely graphic sex and classic rock often within a single track, even a single bar.
On his fourth album, Brown doesn’t stray too far from those topics he’s so synonymous with, but there is a clear sense of progression in his attitude. On the opener of his daunting album XXX (which can be seen as the first in a trilogy for Brown) he spits “And it’s the downward spiral, got me suicidal.” It’s dark, but delivered in an almost cheerful yawp as he bounces to lines like “Surpassing all my idols.” On Atrocity Exhibition, now five years separated, Brown starts where he left off, referencing that first foray, titling the opening track “Downward Spiral.” But this time there’s a desperation even more present than before as he cries, “I gotta figure it out.” That desperation seeps into the production as well: a distorted guitar nearly screams on this track, and comes back most prominently again on the arresting introduction to “Today,” sounding like the entrance music to a decrypt haunted house.
If you thought that that inner desperation would translate to some sappy slow songs about love, you haven’t yet been acclimated to Danny Brown. Atrocity Exhibition includes some of the hardest tracks Brown has released, perhaps ever. Take highlight “Pneumonia,” an angry, abrasive track which slams on its drums while Brown alternates between dead-eyed delivery and front-of-the-battlefield yells. The tongue-in-cheek verses of XXX are gone here — this is straightforward intensity.
The transitions here are deceptively smooth. It doesn’t immediately seem jarring to move from such a war cry to the joyful “Dance in the Water” on account of the baseline similarity in production. But this anthemic track about enjoying life without consequences is a 180-degree turn from where “Pneumonia” left off; in classic Danny Brown style, it just fits. It might be an artificially reached moment of exuberance, like a quick hit of cocaine, but it’s there nonetheless.
The most anticipated moment of this album comes earlier, though: “Really Doe.” Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, Ab-Soul and Danny Brown all line up for the hype, and deliver accordingly. Not since A$AP Rocky’s “1Train” have such a quantity of quality talent come together on a single track so effectively. This one is less menacing than that one, but hits hard. Brown’s bars here are some of the strongest and most consistent on the album, as are the slew of guests. These are men at the top of their game and keenly aware of it.
In many ways this album easily fits within the scope of the two prior: XXX and Old. The style and content is consistent with what came before, though packaged differently. XXX was Brown’s true break into the rap scene, and solidified his style of witty punchlines and a refreshing vulgarity, both of which remain steady on Atrocity Exhibition. Old was far more ambitious in scope, stretching two “sides” like a vinyl record and experimenting with both new age production and classic EDM-inspired beats.
This album feels slightly more coherent than both of its predecessors, at least in its ability to be consumed. It’s four tracks shorter than the first two albums, each of which clocked in at 19 tracks. And it doesn’t terrorize the listener in quite the same way.
In no way, though, does that take merit away from Atrocity Exhibition. Brown stays true to himself as always, irreverently so. The lead single “When It Rain,” is a brief showcase of just that. The unorthodox, bouncy production — which notably omits drums and synths for much of the track — drives Brown’s intense delivery, whose words paint a desolate picture amidst the background of a happy, upbeat party. That dichotomy is quintessential Brown, and nobody else in the game executes it quite as he does.