Even at his darkest, Brown seemed to want to keep the party going.
Music geeks know what Danny Brown is getting at calling his new album Atrocity Exhibition. It’s the title of a collection of stories by science fiction author J. G. Ballard, and more famously, the harrowing, percussive opener of Joy Division’s Closer, an album that explored the dark recesses of its creator’s mental anguish and instability. This is a creative process that Brown knows very well. His career to date, particularly the revelatory and still astonishing Old, has explored a psyche damaged by traumas external and internal, with solace only ever found in getting fucked up. On Atrocity Exhibition, things haven’t improved for him. What Brown gives us is deliberately ugly, an explicit peek into his dark side designed to make his listeners feel uneasy.
Even at his darkest, Brown seemed to want to keep the party going. A lot of his best early work concealed dark subject matter with a gloss of free-partying reckless abandon. Atrocity Exhibition does away with that deception almost immediately with “Downward Spiral,” on which Brown seems to be withdrawing, sweating through his clothes and realizing that his nights of debauchery can’t keep the demons at bay anymore. Brown raps this in his untraditional cadence, trying to keep up with the jerky rhythms backing him up. No aspect of the song could be interpreted as celebratory, which is the album’s defining characteristic: the curtains have been pulled back to reveal the tortured soul lost amid the haze of weed and booze. There are references to isolation and being trapped with one’s own thoughts, as in Petite Noir’s hook on “Rolling Stone”: “You know I’m in my zone/ So don’t speak to me/ And in my mind I just feel so alone/ Just release me.” What we’re left to observe is an unhinged descent into psychosis.
So Atrocity Exhibition isn’t an easy listen, but it is more approachable than one would think. For all of the darkness surrounding the music, Brown is still an absolutely compelling rapper both capable and willing to push aside expectations placed on him and the genre as a whole. He has the flow of a battle rapper, but his words are anything but free association; they cut deep in a way that few of his contemporaries accomplish. He can be pitiable (“Downward Spiral”), celebratory (“Dance on the Water”), sinister (“Ain’t it Funny”) and flat out funny (“Get Hi”) in equal measures, and one never gets the impression that it’s all a put-on. Brown embraces his subjects wholly, regardless of how heavy things get.
Furthermore, Brown’s team of producers, including Paul White, Black Milk, Alchemist and Evian Christ, have created sounds that pull more from the dark recesses of electronic music rather than club-friendly EDM. Sometimes, as in White’s use of a booming horn sample on “Ain’t It Funny,” they subvert expectations, helping Brown create a greater sense of unease. Other songs develop slowly, creating a mood without pulling a musical bait-and-switch. It all plays into the story Brown is telling, and the sometimes schizophrenic production serves as a further guide to Brown’s twisted protagonist.
The likelihood of this getting airplay or making Brown into a bigger commercial star is slim, though the album does contain one of the slickest, most enjoyable posse cuts ever made in “Really Doe.” Otherwise, this is an auteur performance in a genre that rarely rewards visionaries like Brown. Atrocity Exhibition is a starting journey that weaves around the darkened alleys of a troubled, broken mind in search of light. It’s unsettling, affecting and compelling in a way that few pieces of music have been this year. The inevitable destination on the album may scare some, but try not to let it dissuade you from the unforgettable journey inside.