Danny Brown’s been on this bad trip before. “I’m sweatin’ like I’m in a rave / Been in this room for three days,” he yelps on “Downward Spiral,” the first track of his new album “Atrocity Exhibition.” Five years ago, on the title track to his breakout mixtape, “XXX,” Brown rapped that he hadn’t left the house in three days. Oh yeah, and that he was on a downward spiral, “got me suicidal.”
To read too deeply into the references to “The Downward Spiral” (an album by Nine Inch Nails) and “Atrocity Exhibition” (a song by Joy Division) would be a disservice to Brown. More than just Brown’s third excellent album in a row, “Atrocity Exhibition” is another collection of songs that sounds like it could have only come from the mind of hip-hop’s most gleefully unhinged MC. While Brown flirted with a more mainstream-friendly sound on last album “Old,” this new release jettisons the EDM inflections that colored tunes like “Dip” and “Smokin’ & Drinkin’” and embraces a sharper, more dissonant sound.
Case in point: lead single “When It Rain.” Pinched between a grumbling beat and a pitch-warped saxophone, Brown spits out an impossibly fast verse in which he ducks for cover from a shower — of bullets, not raindrops. “Ain’t no water, how a flower gon’ grow?” he raps, staring at the wilted remains of Tupac’s rose, strangled by the concrete. Brown, a Detroit native, is no stranger to the grim and gritty side of life, but he’s never told it like this before.
Half of the songs on the album don’t even last three minutes, not that you’d want them to. The production on this album was chiefly handled by Paul White, a previous collaborator of Brown’s, and they bring out the worst in each other in the best way possible. “Ain’t It Funny” sounds like Brown is backed by a marching band from hell, while “From the Ground” is two minutes of ghoulish funk, with a guest spot from Kelela that cuts through like a ray of light. The honking saxophone on “Golddust” and the clattering drums on “Dance in the Water,” perhaps the only respite from the drugs and violence, make for some truly wild rave-ups. “Atrocity Exhibition” isn’t as abrasive as, say, “Yeezus,” but it embraces a similar sense of chaos. These instrumentals are unpolished, jarring; if they’re this hard to listen to, I can’t imagine how hard it was for Brown to rap over them.
As off-putting as Brown’s new sound can be at first blush, his singles are an ideal starting point. “When It Rain,” the first fans heard of the new album, is Brown in peak form, but “Pneumonia” offers up all the hallmarks of a classic Brown song — drug-fueled debauchery, complete with a pair of luridly funny oral sex jokes. But “Really Doe,” five minutes of head-spinning wordplay between Brown, Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt, is something else entirely. Lamar is still the number-one rapper in the world, and if you somehow managed to forget that, he’ll have you know by the end of his verse: “Countin’ money, watchin’ paint dry / When I’m done is when the rain [reign?] stops.” Lamar sets a high bar, but Earl hurdles it in an uncharacteristically aggressive verse that matches both the energy and the bravado of everyone who comes before him. It takes a certain kind of guy to barge into your house party and ask “Why you got your couch on my Chucks?”
If Brown’s own tough-guy façade starts to fade by the end of the album, it’s because he’s unable to maintain it as he recounts the horrors he’s seen. Brown has rapped about substance abuse, dead friends and depression before, but never this vividly or viscerally. And unlike “Old,” no one’s going to confuse these songs for party music — this is an album that’s willing to cross over into some pretty disturbing territory. (The album cover, though a perfect representation of the sounds within, still kind of freaks me out.) On “Atrocity Exhibition,” Brown shows you the way to a horror show of his own design, and dares you to step inside.
Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu.