I know my reviews have been hyper positive lately but I wanted to get through all of the good stuff from September because I was busy covering Pop Montreal.
Just as Danny Brown’s verses stand on the edge of sanity, the beats on his new aptly titled “Atrocity Exhibition” ride waves of wild instability with rapid change coming with each passing track. Perhaps a bit more neon-infused than your average post-punk album, the aesthetic of the more instrumental cuts thrives on driving bass lines and bleak guitar sounds in a similar fashion to Joy Division, making for an intriguing combination of genres. In a manner only Danny Brown could achieve, the lyrics jump between humorous metaphors and meaningful anecdotal evidence from Brown’s life. When it comes down to it, Danny Brown has a larger than life personality on all accounts and although this may lead to problems if Brown’s extravagance overstays its welcome, the album’s dedication to classic aesthetics of hip hop keep everything palpable.
Comprised of a lot of short tunes, “Atrocity Exhibition” thrives on overarching lyrical themes and cohesive flow from song to song. Although all of the tracks flow into each other well, certain sections tend to operate in the same way. For instance, the first three songs successfully introduce the album with open instrumentals and words about Brown’s drug habits, paranoia, and dangerous past. “Downward Spiral” frames a particularly dark scene: “I’m sweating like I’m in a rave/Been in this room for 3 days/Think I’m hearing voices…Only time I use [my phone] when I tell the dealer drop it off…Had to fuck em both raw, keep my fingers crossed.” The haunting nature of the rock instrumental supports the dark lyrical ideas touching upon isolation, drug use, and danger. The notion of danger in particular carries over to the next song, “Tell Me What I Don’t Know,” where Brown discusses his experience in the streets: “Shit is like a cycle/You get out, I go in, this is not the life for us.” The idea of Brown and his friends on a cycle of facing time may also relate to the nature of his drug use. Fearful lyricism is matched by the lower vocal register rapping, starkly contrasting the usual wild flow that generally expresses an air of confidence. “Rolling Stone” is a relatively similar song about Brown’s wild lifestyle with a hook that fits into the same moods of the previous two tracks.
After theses moody introductory songs, Brown takes a turn for electric energy sparked by the hefty single “Really Doe.” Featuring the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Ab Soul, and Earl Sweatshirt, this tune hits hard from front to back. Perhaps this may not be a departure from the path as the beat kind of feels like a classic 90s cut, but considering the re-contextualization of hip-hop driven by more commercially successful artists, the combination of four relatively traditional MCs reads as refreshing. For the next four songs, the album takes this energy and runs with it. “Ain’t it Funny” sticks out with a unique, punching beat; Quick bass hits drive the rhythm with psychotic horn sounds adding to the wall of sound. Brown’s words still manage to out sing the heavy beat with biting lyrics about his drug habits. “Golddust” and “White Lines” follow, again emphasizing energy, before “Pneumonia” signals a slight change of pace.
The second half of the record is a bit more polarizing than the first. Brown quickly toggles through vastly different moods as each track passes by. “Pneumonia” is a bit less intense than the eccentric ploys that precede it, but it’s followed by absolute insanity on “Dance in the Water.” Then, the low vocal styling of “Tell Me What I Don’t Know” returns on “From The Ground,” where Brown addresses some of the struggles that face his artistic life style. Brown begins by talking about his rise to fame: “I deserve the finer things/Told myself back then/When I used to ride a Schwinn/Now I’m on a tour bus/Going places I ain’t never been” then he talks about how he was put in jail, which essentially ruined the career he had built. This might speak to the experience of many rappers as any kind of success may put a target on their back and put them in prison. He also discusses how his art drives him to work all night and lose sleep and compares this work to that of a slave “Get it how you live, why I’m out here in the field.” Although rap can gain him great success, Danny must continuously work to maintain the wall he has built, an issue that would not be nearly as pressing if he were white in a traditional job.
As the album reaches its conclusion, Brown continues this idea of rapid shift in opposite directions. Considering his lyrical ideas, this may serve to represent a manic depressive state. It seems that Brown, although occasionally confident in his success, has a sense of anxiety that follows each of his words. In the beginning of the album, drug habits reveal their dangerous implications and Brown feels trapped by them. Issues of fame are interspersed within loud, fast verses as Brown goes from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows without any control. This tension is reflected in the instrumentals a well. Boundary pushing beats are filled with instrumental parts on the edge of falling apart, challenging Brown to remain in control of the song.
This album is certainly quite brilliant. Danny Brown comes through with some of his most potent material yet and his advanced instrumentals seek to forge new paths in hip-hop. Admittedly, Brown’s flows are a bit of an acquired taste and his beats might not result in major in the genre as they are still a bit rooted in the past, but the album is certainly a great success.