Danny Brown has always been one of the most eccentric rappers in today’s hip-hop scene. I’ve always found he had somewhat of a Jekyll and Hyde quality about him; capable of a chilled out, socially conscious track immediately followed by an outrageous hedonistically mindless party banger. That’s probably just proof of his versatility but for some reason, that stark contrast visible on his past albums has always stood out for me, more than any other artist. However, the Detroit-based rapper is now back with his new album ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ which is certainly his most personal record yet, but also his darkest and most ambitious.
I’d have to say throughout this album there is a recurring theme of instability, possibly mental instability, which seems to be reflected in almost every aspect of the album. This includes everything from Danny Brown’s frenetic delivery to the often unusually-styled production and instrumentals. This could very well be a portrayal of Danny’s descent into madness; indeed the first track is called ‘Downward Spiral’ and introduces us to the type of sound mainly featured on the record. From the first few tracks, it’s clear this sounds very different to any of Danny Brown’s past releases. In fact, it sounds almost completely different to any hip-hop album I’ve heard in the last couple of years. It’s no secret that Danny Brown was largely influenced by bands such as Joy Division, Nine Inch Nails, Talking Heads and System of a Down for this latest release and he has indeed made use of instrumentation more familiar to their work than that of fellow contemporary hip-hop artists. The distorted, wavy guitars and stumbling, off-kilter drums on the first three tracks are the most noticeable for sure and whilst these might not be as immediately enjoyable as some of the other instrumentation on the album, they do an excellent job of setting the tone early on and creating this generally unsettling atmosphere. Perhaps most impressive though is the eerie, ominous production on lead singles ‘Really Doe’, ‘Pneumonia’ and ‘When It Rain’. Black Milk’s work on ‘Really Doe’ is personally most memorable with his use of a really creepy glockenspiel-type arpeggio. As we get deeper and deeper into the track listing, the production becomes increasingly outlandish with the blaring slightly dissonant synthesised horns on ‘Ain’t it Funny’ and ‘Golddust’ and similar effects crashing through the openings to ‘From the Ground’ and ‘Today’. For sure, Danny Brown and the producers working on this release made some gutsy choices and have created something which sonically, stands out almost completely on its own.
The lyrical content on this record has also evolved from Danny Brown’s past releases, becoming more personal and introspective than I’ve ever heard from him. Of course, the vivid, boastful descriptions of gang life and life in Detroit are renewed in great detail on several tracks but Danny Brown has taken his lyricism to another level and often takes a much more serious approach to his song writing. Many of these tracks discuss themes of isolation, paranoia and self-loathing and Danny Brown lays it all out, showing him at his most vulnerable and most exposed from a mental health perspective. On ‘Downward Spiral’ he states “your worst nightmare for me is a normal dream”, and on ‘Rolling Stone’ he confesses he “can’t be straight, can’t be sober, can’t make it up, up out of the sewer” as his “thought process [is] so immature”. Others such as ‘Ain’t it Funny’ demonstrate how he is stuck in cycle of drug abuse and alcoholism which leads to anxiety, forcing him to drink more and take more drugs abuse. ‘Golddust’ also creates this impression of complete helplessness when faced with his addictions as he has “lost control” and is unable to stop living this “life of sin”, even stating “[I] don’t have a soul, myself I don’t know no more”. Danny Brown’s rhymes and wordplay are still as creative and tongue-in-cheek as before, however he has effectively managed to express his deepest and darkest thoughts on this album, something that his previous releases lacked.
Finally, this record is much more focused on the main man, Danny Brown himself. As already mentioned, the subject matter of the album delves much further into his psyche but in general, this feels much more like a work in which Danny Brown has been able to express his true creative self; make this his album, with him as the centrepiece, without too many other artists drawing attention. Indeed, there aren’t nearly as many features on ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ as there were on ‘Old’. This time they seem to be carefully chosen for the right song at the right time. Petite Noir and Kelela’s features on ‘Rolling Stone’ and ‘From the Ground’ respectively are fairly small but they fit in well and add to the tracks. The only feature-heavy song is posse cut ‘Really Doe’ but again Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt are more than competent rappers and deliver their verses expertly. Danny Brown meanwhile, on most tracks has the same high-pitched hyperactive delivery that makes him so unique. He maintains some especially crazed flow on ‘When it Rain’, ‘Ain’t it Funny’ and ‘Dance in the Water’ and more than ever gives the impression of a guy losing his mind. Nonetheless, on this release he seems to have a lot more intention behind his delivery especially on closing track ‘Hell For It’. The heavier subject material may play a part here but on the latter track for example, he seems determined to prove himself and stake his claim as one of today’s top rappers, but also not admit defeat against his various psychological struggles.
Overall then, with this latest release Danny Brown seems to have hit a creative peak in producing hip-hop music but also delivered a powerful statement of intent. This album has gone miles further in developing the kind of sound one could expect from him, and goes deeper into the recesses of his mind to deliver a set of twisted and sometimes frightening anecdotes about addiction, gang life and mental frailty. This is by far his least accessible release so it may take a while to fully enjoy it, but there is solid lyricism and production, with subject matter fierily delivered by one of the most creative and imaginative rappers of the moment. I look forward to seeing what more he has to offer.