-Danny Brown releases a wild, unhinged masterwork.
“I’m sweating like I’m in a rave / been in this room for three days…”
The room Danny Brown is in is in the top floor of a shitty, drab hotel, overlooking the neon lit alleyway where all the junkies shoot up in the perpetual rain. That’s where this album takes place. But really this about Danny’s isolation. His breakdown. Danny was always dark and drugged out, both during the high and the hangover, but here he’s more unhinged than he’s ever been, and that’s also reflected in the production. On the first track alone, aptly titled “The Downward Spiral,” Brown raps about hearing voices and seeing ghosts, having narcotic induced erectile dysfunction, and not knowing the last time he ate, all over formless drums and whining guitars. It’s a strange introduction, but it’s perfectly indicative of the experimentation and oppressive atmosphere that is to come.
Danny is all nihilism here, and the production (mostly provided by Paul White, though Black Milk was on the boards for the menacing “Really Doe”) certainly matches that. It sounds just like the cover. It’s dark and hellish, but with a purplish, neon hue to it. Perfect Halloween music; again, it’s kind of scary at times, bleak at others, mindfucking most of the time, but at the end of the day, you’re dancin’ and having the time of your life. “The Downward Spiral” and “Tell Me What I Don’t Know” are oppressively dark subject matter wise and instrumentally, but there are the bright, soaring guitar tones that give these tracks an almost majestic quality in spite of lyrics like: “Couldn’t get it hard, had to stuff it in soft / Had to fuck em both raw, keep my fingers crossed…” and “Shit is like a cycle / You get out, I go in, this is not the life for us…” (The latter is from “Tell Me What I Don’t Know,” maybe my favorite lyrical performance from Danny yet.)
The rest of the album follows suit, though there’s hardly a formula here. It’s a trip about 45 chambers beneath the surface, but it’s almost blissful in its insanity and darkness. “Ain’t It Funny” and “Dance in the Water” are borderline bonkers, with blaring walls of horns on the former and African chants on the latter. Danny is just yelling to keep up. “Really Doe” is maybe the most conventional hip-hop song here, and all the better for it, because we end up with a fantastic posse cut featuring sick verses from Danny, Ab-Soul, Kendrick, and Earl, the last of which comes out on top in my opinion. He’s so confident in his abilities that he doesn’t need to have the flashiest flow or the wittiest wordplay. He’s just going to give you a clinic on how to deliver a tough talking rap verse, and spit in the face of anyone who doubts his place among the very best rappers of this generation.
This then transitions right into “Lost,” in one of my favorite moments on the album. “Really Doe” ends on Earl’s verse really abruptly and instead of giving us some time to recover from the rapping onslaught of that track we’re headfirst into “Lost,” which features Danny rapping with his trademark relentless flow and yelpy voice over a beat most rappers wouldn’t be able to crack. Not because it’s totally formless like the intro here, but because it’s almost normal. It’s in the uncanny valley of rap beats. The sample is cut up in a way that it’s close to being a standard cut up soul sample yet it’s so, so far away from being that.
So, we’ve talked a lot about the darkness here. In the production and in Danny’s lyrical and vocal performance. (Which maybe isn’t as technically impressive as “XXX,” but he’s never sounded more comfortable and challenged at the same time. He’s rapping like his whole career has been building up to this, and he knows it.) But there is an outlier: “Get Hi.” Maybe my favorite song on here. It’s fucking beautiful. Gone are the crazy drum patterns and the wailing synths and blaring horns and yelped vocals and the like. In its place, a gentle bed of synth cymbals lightly pitter pattering in your ear like rain and some heavenly hums in the background. Lyrically, it’s a weed smoker’s anthem. Had a bad day? Just got fired? Girl just left you? Smoke up. Of course it’s all bittersweet because it is an acknowledgement of an “unhealthy choice” if you wanna get all technical, but anyone who smokes on a somewhat regular basis knows that there are few greater feelings than the inhale of weed after some particularly stressful event or a hard work week. This song is that inhale, and that feeling of calm that you have during and afterwards. Danny Brown (and B-Real on the hook) have captured that feeling and bottled it into a magical three minutes. In an album full of chaotic instrumentals, freakish vocals, and pure nihilism, this song stands out as an essential calm in the middle of the storm.
And what a storm it is. There may be a few albums I like more than this one, but I don’t think anything this year screams “classic” quite like this one, besides Blonde. I can see this album quickly becoming canonized and being seen as essential listening on the weirder side of hip-hop within a year or so. Not just the glowing reception its received so far tells me that, either. It’s just that no album this unique and creative and off the wall is simply going to become a forgotten relic for genre enthusiasts to pick up years later. Atrocity Exhibition will be right there, shining at the surface for years to come, ready to be laid upon the ears of another unsuspecting victim. It will have a legacy. I , for one, can’t wait to see it.
Standout Tracks: “Downward Spiral” “Tell Me What I Don’t Know” “Really Doe” “Lost” “Ain’t It Funny” “When It Rain” “Get Hi”