It’s been a big year for rap. The four biggest rap stars of the moment- Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Drake and Chance the Rapper– all put out full length projects, and Young Thug has over the summer skyrocketed into super stardom on the back of his new mixtape, Jeffery. The two main production styles, gospel/neo-soul and trap, have been both championed and beaten into the ground, and what lies in their wake is a definitive depiction of what hip hop looks like in 2016, packaged and put into a time capsule for future generations to unpack and ask ‘what the fuck?’
Enter Danny Brown. The 35 year-old Detroit rapper, known for his candid and affectionate personality, offbeat fashion style, gapped teeth and love of MDMA has stayed fairly quiet since the release of his excellent 2013 LP Old. But with this week’s release of the massively hyped Atrocity Exhibition, not only has he cast the entire rap world in the shadow of a new and unique production aesthetic, he’s stolen the rug out from under every would-be MC of the year.
Atrocity Exhibition is an album about crack cocaine abuse, and it stays on theme in a way that approaches concept-album level of cohesion. As a teenager and young man, Danny sold crack on the streets of Detroit to provide for his family and daughter, eventually doing jail time at age 26. After straightening himself out and focusing on his rap career, Danny hit the big time on the back of 2011’s XXX. Drug abuse, the crumbling state of Detroit, and his time spent in prison are themes that have long persisted throughout Danny’s music, which typically tiptoes an uncanny valley between molly’d up bangers and paranoid introspection, but the lyrical content of Atrocity Exhibition brings Danny’s crushing honesty to a whole new level.
Kicking off with the head turning, off-kilter ‘The Downward Spiral’, Danny introduces the album’s themes in the wake of a coked-out, unsettling writing sprint, rapping in his trademark wild, high-pitched voice ‘Been grinding on my teeth so long it’s swelling up my jaw / Your worst nightmare for me is a normal dream’ over rambling production that sounds like jazz musicians warming up for a session. No backbeat, live instrumentation, and Danny’s quirky voice lead into the brutally straightforward ‘Tell Me What I Don’t Know’, where Danny falls back on his lower, ‘sober’ voice, detailing the hellish landscape of gangs, killings, police brutality and crack addiction he endured throughout his youth, and challenging other rappers who talk the talk but have never lived the life. ‘Last night homie got killed at the liquor store / Shot my nigga on the way to get a Swisher / Breaking down the weed when the call got received’ Danny states clearly with straight-out-of-the-diary prose. The production stays minimal, with a tribal drumbeat settling in perfectly on the second verse.
Continuing the album’s incredibly strong opening, we are gifted the posse cut, ‘Really Doe’, which features a Kendrick Lamar sung hook and the record’s now-familiar haunting, minimalist production. As usual, the technique on Kendrick’s verse continues to impress, but Earl Sweatshirt delivers a great final verse that sounds more aggressive than he has since 2010’s Earl mixtape, and Ab-Soul doesn’t ruin the song. After the eerie and clever ‘Lost’, on which Danny is completely strung out but still making crack (‘Hunched over the stove gotta water water whip it / Lost in the sauce but a nigga still stirring’) we are lead into Atrocity Exhibition’s second act, which features back to back to back to back high-energy bangers about cocaine that themselves sound fueled by cocaine.
The first of these, ‘Ain’t It Funny’, hits like a truck and comes dripping with hyped-up club vibes, featuring a heavy back-beat and churning brass section as Danny comes fast and furious in the thick of his drug-induced paranoia, rapping ‘I’ma wash away my problems with this bottle of Henny / anxiety got the best of me so popping them Xannies’. ‘Golddust’ is similarly intense, with post-punk inspired, doomsaying production from Paul White. White is responsible for the majority of the production credits on Atrocity Exhibition, and his impact can’t be understated; Atrocity is a wildly experimental rap record with beats so strange and difficult that it’s amazing that anyone can rap on them, especially someone whose vocals are as unpredictable and aggressive as Danny’s. But somehow it works, and the revelation that the record features no guest verses aside from on ‘Really Doe’ comes upon realizing that no one in the game can make these songs work aside from Danny.
‘Pneumonia’ is perhaps the bleakest and creepiest track Atrocity Exhibition has to offer, complete with snarling yelps from ScHoolboy Q, and leads into another face wrecking banger, ‘Dance In The Water’. What’s perhaps more impressive than both Danny’s painfully honest lyricism and the varied and intriguing production on Atrocity Exhibition is his ability to hop on and flow through every complex beat while staying in character as a mentally disturbed coked out rock star, and if the course of the album feels like being on an upper, this middle section is the dead center of the high. But the lower key, more introspective and chilled out final act, buttressed by another ‘sober Danny’ performance on ‘From The Ground’ and ‘Get Hi’, a sarcastic ode to temporarily escaping problems with drugs, centers around the best song on the record, and perhaps the best rap song of the year, the Detroit-centric ‘When It Rain’.
With unnerving, anxious production of bleeping synths and arpeggiators backed by the constant ticking of a clock, Danny’s flow gets faster and angrier as he spews out heartbreaking couplet after couplet regarding the destruction within his hometown. ‘Dark clouds hanging all over our head / No sunshine and them showers be lead /Lighting up squares and them dots be red /Now ya best friend gets shot in the head, damn!’ Danny blasts, referencing both the Flint, Michigan water crisis and drug fueled gang violence before jumping into the infections chorus of ‘Oh, you ain’t know that! / When it rain, when it pour, get your ass on the floor now!’ It’s incredibly raw, real, and still manages to be extremely catchy and impressive.
Danny has cited Radiohead, the Talking Heads, Bjork and Joy Division (from whom’s lyric the album takes its title) as influences on his work and Atrocity Exhibition in particular, hoping to emulate those groups’ boundary-pushing sonic directions within his own universe and utilizing his own unique talents. With Atrocity Exhibition, he has succeeded in spades. This record will be for future young rappers the textbook example of ‘how to turn the entire genre on its head’, and it comes just at a perfect moment in which the entire trap aesthetic is finally starting to grow stale. Sorry Thugger, Chance and Kanye; Danny Brown is the king of 2016.
Written by HR Huber-Rodriguez