"Atrocity Exhibition" sounds like the record Danny Brown's always wanted to make.
Since blowing up with XXX in 2011, Danny Brown's enjoyed an odd sort of fame. He's become a huge mainstay in the summer music festival circuit thanks to turnt anthems like "Blunt After Blunt," "I Will," and the second half of Old, which was entirely composed of EDM-adjacent bangers. For Brown, who had been hustling for years prior (famously missing out on a G-Unit deal thanks to his skinny jeans), attracting hoards of party-ready college-age kids was a huge, unexpected career boost. It was, however, a little frustrating to see an artist with so much depth get recognized as a one-trick pony.
Addiction, paranoia, and depression have always been equal, if not greater, focuses of Brown's music in comparison to turning up. Those themes may lurk under the surface of nihilistic bangers like "Smokin & Drinkin," but on half of his last two albums, they've been thrust front-and-center and just haven't received as much recognition as the tracks that paint Brown as the Willy Wonka of a drug-and-sex-fueled wonderland. It's totally understandable why Brown devoted so much space on Old to those cuts-- that's where the bulk of his checks ended up coming from-- but it's always seemed like he was most invested in evolving his sound to match the damaged, fucked-up lyrics that tell his true story. Three years later, with several summers of festivals and a new deal with UK electronic label Warp under his belt, Brown he's finally able to drop the commercial pretenses, blow $70,00 on samples, and make Atrocity Exhibition, an album almost entirely devoted to the "bad trip" side of his sound.
On the darker halves of his last two albums (XXX's back end and Old's front end), Brown worked with British producer Paul White, an underground vet whose biggest skill is flipping forgotten psych-rock cuts from the '60s and '70s into damaged-sounding slappers. White handled three and five tracks, respectively, on Brown's last two full-lengths; now he's responsible for two-thirds of Atrocity Exhibition. It's the perfect pairing for Brown's zooted-but-locked-in bars-- like White, he's able to engage with past eras of music without ever sounding retro-- and working more closely together this time, they're able to sculpt their usual creative spark into a fuller vision. Jagged guitar riffs, cacophonous horns, and haunting vocal samples tumble around atop some of the most avant-garde beats you'll hear this year, creating an auditory reflection of the troubled mental states Brown describes throughout. The closest producer-rapper analog is probably Action Bronson and Party Supplies, who turned their Blue Chips series and parts of last year's Mr. Wonderful into similar bizarro worlds of obscure YouTube rips. Brown and Bronson both have the ability to be cartoonish, but for this unhinged style of music, I'd have to say that Brown's harrowing tales of Detroit are a better fit than Bronson's lurid fantasies of smashing hookers in back alleys.
The stories Brown's telling haven't changed at all since XXX's "DNA," but he's gotten better as a lyrical stylist. It's the small details that count, like the way he describes the unexpectedness of his friend's murder on "Tell Me What I Don't Know" ("Breaking down the weed when the call got received") or the fact that he can't smoke weed after getting sentenced ("Gave us all probation now we smokin' Newports"). It's a great example of a common rule in writing, "Show, don't tell," which takes confidence and clarity to pull off. All over this album, Brown manages to tell larger stories about urban decay, poverty, addiction, and fame without making sweeping generalizations, or getting preachy or nonspecific. He stays serious for the most part while still giving us some of that classic Danny Brown wit and wordplay at key moments-- "When It Rain"'s double entendre of getting pissed on in Detroit's "No Fly Zone" and the constant jazz references on "Get Hi" being two of my favorites. Brown always had the ability to come up with crazy bars, but now he's using them more purposefully than he did back in his "Sorta like Squidward and his clarinet" days.
With its inner turmoil, tales from Brown's past, and nuclear fallout psychedelia, Atrocity Exhibition makes a nice companion to another one of 2016's best hip hop albums, Schoolboy Q's Blank Face. Q, who provides ad-libs on "Pneumonia," seems to be in a similar position in his career, and both of these guys have made paranoid rap classics on par with Scarface's The Diary or Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury. The two songs that Brown quotes on Atrocity Exhibition are telling signposts of where the album falls in rap music history -- UGK's fatalistic "One Day" gets a nod on "Downward Spiral" and Brown cops multiple bars from the oil war hysteria of OutKast's "B.O.B." on "Today." Ever the music scholar, Brown somehow manages to weld the weirdness of pysch and post-punk to an existing tradition of paranoid hip hop.
There are only a few moments when the album doesn't live up to its ambitiously fucked-up aspirations. One is "Really Doe," which sees Brown jump back into battle mode for one verse, but listening to the Four Horseman of the Rapocalypse attempt to one-up each other is far too much of a treat to hold anything against the uncharacteristic banger. "Pneumonia" contains the only other callback to Brown's past, with producer Evian Christ cooking up something similar to many of Skywlkr's beats on XXX, but again, it's one of the best tracks Danny's done. No complaints there. The one actual weak track, in my opinion, is "Dance In The Water," which has an interesting enough beat, but suffers from a lazy flow from Danny and some subpar lyrics. As a follow-up to the stylistically segregated Old, though, you couldn't really ask for more cohesion.
Danny Brown was calling himself the "greatest rapper ever" back on 2010's The Hybrid, and Atrocity Exhibition closer "Hell For It" adds a postscript to that, with Brown renewing his promise to never stop going in until the day he dies to show his onetime doubters wrong. He's had to make some concessions to get here, but Brown seems to be making music by no one's rules but his own, which was his goal since day one. "Downward Spiral" contains another nod to Brown's past, namely XXX's legendary title track, with Brown adding that he's got to "figure it out." In terms of his artistry, he definitely has.