Volume 10, Issue 12
Atrocity Exhibition is strange, bleak and brilliant. The album, Danny Brown’s fourth, centres on themes he’s explored before: excess, addiction, depression, artistic expression, and his experiences growing up in the ghettos of Detroit. These concepts are mostly delivered in Brown’s trademark yelp, with the kind of densely packed rhymes his fans are familiar with (‘Verbal couture/Parkour with the metaphors/The flow house of horror/Dead bolted with metal doors’).
Yet in a deeper sense, Atrocity Exhibition is a major departure from Brown’s oeuvre, and from the main currents of hip-hop generally. Thanks to the unprecedentedly dark tone of Brown’s lyrics (the braggadocio and humour of XXX are largely absent here), and some truly daring production, it’s fair to say that this album is unlike anything you’re likely to have heard before.
On his last two albums, Brown divided the track list into two mostly consistent thematic halves: on XXX (2011), there was a definite shift from manic Danny to depressed Danny on the track ‘DNA’; on Old (2013), the reverse shift was explicitly signalled by the track ‘Side B’.
By contrast, Atrocity Exhibition jumps forwards and backwards in time between or within tracks—juxtaposing the suicidal excess of Brown’s present (‘I'm sweating like I’m in a rave/Been in this room for three days’) with the desperation of his early years in Detroit (‘Tell me what I don’t know/Last night homie got killed at the liquor store’). Brown isn’t so much doing this to demonstrate how far he’s come, but to highlight the similarities between his old and new lives. Brown still exists on a knife’s edge, but now the threats to his life are internal, not external.
Where this album stands out—and where it’s most likely to polarise listeners—is in the production. This is mostly the work of London-based musician Paul White, who produced ten of the album’s fifteen tracks (the remaining five were made by Petite Noir, Black Milk, Alchemist, Playa Haze and Evian Christ respectively).
The creative potential of the Brown-White duo was evident on ‘Fields’, one of the standout tracks on XXX, on which pulsating stereo pans and samples from the anime film Akira were overlaid with an understated but devastating chorus (‘And where I lived, it was house, field, field/Field, field, house/Abandoned house, field, field’). The pair don’t disappoint here: on ‘When It Rain’, White transforms a 1968 musique concrete composition by Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop into something which would sound at home on a UK pirate radio station, while Brown’s lyrics alternate between braggadocio and grim realism about life in Detroit.
This isn’t to say that the production always succeeds. While the atonal, swerving horns on ‘Ain’t it Funny’ help to convey the manic misery of the lyrics (‘Savage with bad habits/Broke serving fiends/Got rich became an addict’), they’re difficult to stomach unless you’re in the right mood. The same goes for Brown’s imitation of the minor-keyed synth sample on ‘White Lines’. Such outré production also makes more conventional tracks, such as ‘Get Hi’ or ‘Really Doe’ feel a little out of place.
‘Tell Me What I Don’t Know’, ‘Really Doe (feat. Kendrick Lamar, Ab Soul and Earl Sweatshirt)’, ‘When It Rain’.
Is it worth buying?
Yes. This record rewards repeated listens (I’m on #20 at the time of writing…) That said, those unfamiliar with Brown’s work might be better off starting with something more accessible, like XXX.
Hamish Williamson is a third-year JD student
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