Album review: Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

By David Flanigan (@DavFlan)

“Most personal work to date” is a box-quote so misused it has become wholly euphemistic of an ill-considered self-indulgence. This does not apply to Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition. While bleak descriptions of Danny’s sexual habits and ruinous lifestyle have been well-storied in his previous projects, Atrocity Exhibition sees the latter scrutinised more than ever before. Channelling Ian Curtis as the album title shares its name with a Joy Division track of the same title, the notion of voyeurism, particularly that of his fans, is the album’s basis; as they take enjoyment from his music that so often catalogues his addictions, his flaws – his long, slow, self-destruction.

Danny is soberly aware that he’s on borrowed time, spiritually: “Whoever would imagine/That jokes on you/But Satan the one laughing?” (Ain’t It Funny) and mentally: “I’m walking on this long road/Will I come back?/Homie, I don’t even really know” (Rolling Stone), the harrowing reality of his situation emanates throughout. Even comparatively unvexed posse cut Really Doe – upon which Danny revisits his collaboration with Kendrick Lamar on A$AP Rocky’s excellent 1Train – is undercut with dark references in Ab-Soul’s verse: “Still wicked as Aleister/Crowley n****s know me well/For heaven’s sake/I’m the GOAT/You haters can go to hell,” although time is still found for Earl Sweatshirt to bring levity-soaked punchlines: “Well it’s the left-handed shooter/Kyle Lowry the pump/I’m at your house like: ‘Why you got your couch on my Chucks?’”

With the widespread critical and popular acclaim for XXX and particularly the trap-heavy Old, Danny had the festival crowds in his grasp. Yet, rather than seek to harness this, he took the sharpest of left turns; Atrocity Exhibition is devoid of nearly all popular modern hip-hop production tropes. From the inaugural guitar meanders and overpowering feedback drowning out Danny’s vocals out on opener Downward Spiral, vastly varying production and consistently visceral percussion echoes and clatters across basically every track, scarcely a trap snare-roll in earshot.

Petite Noir’s unearthly synth tones echo in the distance of Rolling Stone, other-worldly whispers coupling his haunting vocal feature as it stutters and fades towards the tracks close. A glockenspiel, of all things, fronts Really Doe while Pneumonia is Atrocity Exhibition’s most modern-sounding contribution – ScHoolBoy Q provides ad-libs – yet it still sports an ominous, lumbering instrumental.

Hip-hop has produced few more deranged collections of off-the-wall beats ($70,000 worth of production and samples) and they come no more lurid than Atrocity Exhibitions Paul White-produced star triple-act: the untamed incantations of Dance in the Water, When It Rain’s foreboding bass hum propping up a guitar scuttle and güiro duel and Ain’t It Funny‘s frankly, mind-pulping horn section.

Vocally, Danny’s low mutters on the sobering Tell Me What I Don’t Know and From the Ground are an early warm-up, and a much-needed breather deep into the record, respectively, as he unleashes his trademark manic squawk upon the rest of the album’s track-list. He still delivers absurdly well – particularly when he’s at full pelt – scalding across When It Rain, Today and Golddust, to name a few, and laying odd, staggered flows on Pneumonia and White Lines.

While at times a cautionary tale (Hell For It) and undoubtedly becoming the grimmest record in Danny Brown’s discography thus far, he has never sounded more at home than as the ringleader of his own hellish, aural circus; Atrocity Exhibition finds him at his wild, unfettered, best.