As the final track, “Hell For It,” closed with a beautiful piano outro, I put my headphones down and took the time to digest what had happened over the past 47 minutes. This was my fifth full spin of Atrocity Exhibition, Danny Brown’s fourth studio album, and I still couldn’t wrap my head around it.
I traced my work desk with my uneven fingernails, staring intently at the lines on it. My face felt numb and swollen, as if a series of fists had been pummeling at it for the entire day. After five minutes, I took a deep breath, put my headphones back on, scrolled to “Downward Spiral” and tapped Play again.
While it won’t likely get the accolades and attention of more pop-oriented rap albums released this year, Atrocity Exhibition is a flat-out masterpiece. Crafted carefully after releasing his 2013 breakthrough, Old, this 2016 LP exemplifies everything that is Danny Brown. The jarring appeal resonates from Danny’s troubled life, with autobiographical lyrics and raw emotion.
The memorable moments are the most unexpected. Posse-cut “Really Doe” successfully blends samples of the Montereys’ soulful “Get Down” and Giovani Cristiani’s haunting “Fragments of Crystal.” In an interview with Rolling Stone, Brown revealed that he paid $70,000 to clear the samples for the album, bucking the trend in hip hop toward electronic backing tracks. In his words, “A lot of people cheap. And that’s why their music sounds cheap… I wanna make timeless stuff, so you’re gonna have to spend a couple dollars. You could have Rolex or you can have a Swatch.”
Whether it’s the beat on “Ain’t it Funny” awkwardly stumbling along and creating a bad MDMA trip vibe or the Eastern-sounding “Golddust,” the vibe of the album is of a manic-depressive struggling within himself and it is absolutely brilliant. Lots of credit goes to producer Paul White, who crafted 10 of the 15 songs, for cultivating a gritty Detroit sound that would make J. Dilla proud. The album features an impressive collection of producers that also includes The Alchemist, Black Milk, and Petite Noir.
Lyrically, Danny is at the top of his game. Every track brings a unique flavor to the album, with Danny seamlessly switching flows and inflections on a number of songs. “Downward Spiral” embraces the theme of the album: loneliness and depression. Here, Danny laments on his current state of mind and regrettable choices he’s made, concluding that eventually he’ll need to figure it out. “Tell Me What I Don’t Know,” has Danny detailing his troubled upbringing and the difficulties he’s faced.
The drug theme is rampant. But rather than celebrating his drug use, Danny Brown raps about his dependency on those drugs and how they’re affecting his personal life and well-being. “Ain’t it Funny,” “Golddust,” “Rolling Stone,” and “White Lines” all utilize up-beat production to complement the dreariness of the subject matter.
Depressing in nature, Atrocity Exhibition, sees the Detroit MC indulging himself in various types of instant pleasures, but never finding longstanding happiness in his successes. Danny Brown explained in that same Rolling Stone interview why he named the album after a 1980 Joy Division song and 1970 J.G. Ballard book:
That song, [Ian Curtis is] pretty much talking about how he feels like he’s part of a freak show almost. People just wanna come see him and they just wanna see him be a certain type of way. I totally relate to that. That’s just how I felt with this album, ’cause a lot of people expect for me to be some crazy drugged-out I-don’t-know.
“Hell For It” — the aforementioned album closer — ends in promise where his other albums ended in demise. On here, Danny raps about how the people who doubted him will regret it. For such a tormented individual, the triumph here is his confidence in his ability. Danny Brown knows that he’s a polarizing figure in the hip-hop community. He knows that his rap skill is unique and his tone is abrasive. He knows that he’s created one hell of an album.
Atrocity Exhibition is now available for purchase on Amazon, and available for download on all major streaming services. Stream the full album above for free, courtesy of Spotify.
For more music, news, and tour dates, check out Danny Brown’s Zumic artist page.