Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week's is Danny Brown's fourth LP, Atrocity Exhibition; named after a Joy Division song, and about self-destruction.
It’s best left to an MC like Danny Brown to bring us the year’s most terrifying mastery of showmanship; a true commentary on itself that forcibly silences previous notions of just how far a rap song can go while somehow sharpening the blade of drugged-out rap narratives in an open sea of inconsequential hedonism. There’s no room to fret at the coke residue or the cum stains: Atrocity Exhibition is precisely what’s advertised with no cheap ingredients to taint the recipe we enjoy. Taken literally, Brown arrives at a chilling contention with the atrocities he’s experienced, utilizing maximalism as his vehicle of exhibition, hammering the listener with a ceaseless high, chased by the gravity of the filth and despair that birthed it. Taken further, what remains but the rockstar he’s self-prophesied into existence and what consequences will come after?
The album stays true to Brown’s infatuation with the idea of the high, beginning with “Downward Spiral” sludging along in a first-person chin-check where he grapples with his vices in a startling comfort. The first four records of Atrocity Exhibition deal with this, where Brown’s reflections are consistently interrupted by a binge of something: recidivism in a malnourished Detroit, switching blunts for Newports on probation, doing whatever drug can strip him away from the hell he knows as the dopeman on the block and the dopeman on the festival stage. At 35, Brown’s been on the scenic route to this level of success, and the pain’s not disappearing, but there’s nothing surprising about it.
From “Lost” onward, the bulk of the album reacquaints the listener to the gap-tooth antihero that’ll fuck anything walking and snort any line in sight. A first glance showcases more of the exhibition, Brown gallivanting through the hypermasculine, hyperviolent universe that brought him fortune. With repeated listens, the punchline blatantly overdoses on itself, every detail sounding like the final cry for help before the phone call you never want to receive. He’s laughing in the devil’s face on “Ain’t It Funny,” scoffing at the idea of fans bringing him drugs on “Golddust,” and contemplating which heartbeat will be his last on “White Lines.” Where XXX stood ground between the streets and the big break, and Old was a pendulum between the horrors in the rearview and the waves that’ll keep him afloat, Atrocity Exhibition is the tale of a grizzled veteran whose antics lost their luster long ago, the villain sounding tired of his own shit. It’s neither celebration nor direct indictment of substance use, but the gratuitous abuse is an overwhelming calling card to the listener that consequences never escape no matter how high the pedestal of the rockstar.
The album sounds like Fear & Loathing in Linwood thanks to Paul White’s ear for blending rock, rap, and house into a terrain unfit for anyone other than Danny Brown. He’s the only MC I can quote that traverses this terrain while never sounding awkwardly corny or unnecessarily pompous; he’s a rapper’s rapper, but he meant when he said he’d “Die Like a Rockstar.” Atrocity Exhibition fuses the festival-ready headbang of the second disc of Old with the dirty gristle of skywlkr’s XXX aesthetic to accomplish a sound that leaves the overdrive on to pummel you past your limit, matching the drug-rap overkill. “Pneumonia,” backed by perfect ScHoolboy Q ad-libs, never fully takes off but mounts the pressure amidst all the flex. “When It Rain,” a true Song of the Year contender, does the same but defaces the 808/snare template by layering as many house textures as possible to sound at home in a Chicago basement with kids juking for their lives. This is funhouse horror rap, taking any risk under the sink and remaining unconcerned about the big drop or the crossover appeal.
As a classic Danny Brown record should, the back end of Atrocity Exhibition sifts through the pain to find the silver lining in the come down. He never disconnected from the streets, he knows they never changed, but he worked damn hard to get where he is and he’s damned if someone can take it from him. “Hell for It” is the final grapple with this, Brown as transparent as ever to apologize for all he’s hurt with his addictions while unapologetically condemning how the price of celebrity has outweighed the craft for far too long. Where does Danny Brown go from here: over a decade of hyperprojecting himself as a maniac, destructive tendencies paralleling the fiends he used to serve, how long do you stare once you’ve shattered the fourth wall? Knowing we may not have much more of him left, it’s imperative to celebrate Atrocity Exhibition for the jewel it will remain in time, giving us a Danny Brown least interested in appeasing and most focused on documenting his plight and triumph with an unflinching honesty that’s in rare form.