This Is the Way, Step Inside: A Tour of Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition
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The success story of Danny Brown’s rise to prominence has been a counterintuitive one. Painted as the personification of new school’s unbridled id, Brown was seen by the general public as the gap-toothed goofball hedonist who was more than happy to soundtrack aztec printed Coachella thottery. However, this new career paradigm seemed directly in conflict with the guy who concluded his breakout album XXX with the proclamation “…the thought of no success got a n*gga chasing death/Doing all these drugs in the hopes of OD’ing next, Triple X.” By pure force of will, hip hop journalists were able to perform musical erasure, pushing aside the tragic cautionary tales that Brown had so carefully constructed in the name of embracing easily tweeted punchlines and bangers. On his sophomore LP Old, Danny spent most of the press tour emphasizing that the his music was inherently grounded in duality, preaching the light and dark of rap stardom, but this mission statement fell on deaf ears. Through the blog scene’s revisionist history, Old is largely considered a sellout festival album, with the tank top clad bros embracing the EDM freak outs of “Smokin’ and Drinkin’” and “Dip” to extend the fleeting molly craze that only fascinated Trinidad James and festival trash.
Danny Brown’s third LP, Atrocity Exhibition, stands in stark contrast to Old. A rejection of the crowd pleasing festival anthems he was once synonymous with, Atrocity Exhibition (itself named after the opening track of Joy Division’s second LP as well as Ian Curtis’s full length suicide note Closer), is a 47 minute self-flagellation of Brown’s deepest traumas and insecurities. There are no twerk anthems to be found on this album, nor is there really even the joyful punchline rap of XXX that gave listeners respite in between confessional assaults. Opening track “Downward Spiral” is the sound of pure anguish and mental decay, with Spaghetti Western-esque guitar riffs beginning to synthesize out of nothingness before crumbling under their own weight and pathetically fading out, backed up by irregular drums and Brown’s portrait of a bender gone wrong. The track is the closest hip hop has approached to post punk, refusing to adhere to any sort of real musical convention, matching the chaos of the verses thrust uncomfortably forward in the mix. The Petite Noir featuring “Rolling Stone” goes as far to willfully invoke Joy Division with a high octave bassline reminiscent of Peter Hook, allowing for the album to unabashedly wear its influences on its sleeve. The most adventurous of the instrumentals is far and away album highlight “Ain’t It Funny,” which lands somewhere between Fun House-era Stooges and Insane Clown Posse to fantastic results.
Lyrically, Atrocity Exhibition is well worn territory for Danny Brown. However, the record refuses to give into the puerile euphemisms or out and out perversion that marked his previous work. Each description of hedonism is depicted as frightful, a cry for help from the bottom of an infinite well. The only moment of real braggadocio comes in the form of posse cut “Really Doe,” which weaves together Kendrick Lamar’s double time technical showcases, Ab Soul’s Lil Wayne on DMT schtick, and Earl Sweatshirt’s monotone aggression seamlessly with the assistance of a trunk-knocking Black Milk beat. Ghettotech-influenced lead single “When It Rain” imprisons Brown’s frantic wailing in a wall of fleeting melodies, with synths leaving the instrumental just as soon as they are replaced by a new accented line, giving a fitting instrumental backdrop for Brown to expound upon the human consequences of Detroit’s inner city crime epidemic and the instability of the city. “Lost” utilizes haunting soul samples reminiscent of The Avalanches’s plunderphonics, allowing Danny to conjure perfectly oddball punchlines such as “I’m like Kubrick with two bricks” out of thin air to give a clear window into the mental disarray that can occur once one becomes lost in the sauce. “Pneumonia” once again draws upon Brown’s origin myth of small time drug dealing, utilizing Evian Christ’s seasick trap to paint the narcotic trade in nightmare imagery such as “scale broke so we eyeball it,” with Brown painfully drawing out each syllable all while the beat pulses like a heart locked in violent arrhythmia. In a lyrical sense, Atrocity Exhibiton harkens back to Brown’s earlier work, eschewing the bar-centric set pieces of his catalogue in the name of getting his message across. “Downward Spiral” refuses to utilize any humor, sometimes only dragging along with faint internal rhyme to weave the tale of a man who is surrounded by those saying “you got a lot to be proud of” while Brown himself has “Been high the whole time, don’t realize what I’ve done.”
What makes Atrocity Exhibition a godsend to hip hop at this moment is the album serves as a much needed counterpoint to the genre’s current obsession with the concept of a “rockstar.” Brown is no stranger to this sort of rockist hero worship, with XXX’s “Die Like A Rockstar” examining the pitfalls of fetishizing such a destructive lifestyle. Although rap has always had a fascination with certain musical figures (Kurt Cobain chief among them), obsession with rock stardom has reached never before seen levels. While hip hop has always also maintained a symbiotic relationship with high fashion in the new millennium, Saint Laurent’s revival of heroin chic meets Jim Morrison under Heidi Slimane has played a huge part in this shift. New wave trap artists such as Lil Uzi Vert and Rich The Kid have interpolated the derivative backwash of millennial pop punk (no matter how hard they may try, the emo revival brigade can never legitimize My Chemical Romance) as an ersatz rock stardom, while the likes of Travis Scott (and even to an extent Kanye West) have been pushing a movement for rappers as the logical evolution of the rockstars before them. However, Danny Brown shows the reality of things, providing a voice for the strung out aftermath of hotel parties, voicing the same despair Ian Curtis bellowed a generation before him. Danny Brown is the hero hip hop needs, and Atrocity Exhibition is his vision in full view, warts and all.