Five short years ago, Danny Brown was a 30-year-old rapper still pining for a place on hip-hop’s main stage. Today, with Atrocity Exhibition, he’s made what very well may be the best rap album of 2016.

Danny Brown began turning heads in 2011 with his second studio album, XXX. This release, which contained as many party-rap cuts as it did melancholic songs, exposed Danny’s split personality—one minute he was gleefully embracing decadence, the next lamenting its poisonous allure.

On 2013’s Old, Danny Brown (aka Daniel Dewan Sewell) seen during day two of Forecastle Music Festival at Waterfront Park on Saturday, July 16, 2016, in Louisville, Ky. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)the two sides of Danny’s dichotomous persona became so distinct that he might as well have been two entirely different MCs. Much of Danny’s young fanbase seemed to prefer the Danny Brown that cartoonishly rapped about drug excess over EDM instrumentation to the Danny Brown that moodily divulged his inner psyche.

In a recent interview with NPR’s All Songs Considered, Danny expressed discontent toward people viewing him as a mere “atrocity exhibition,” something horrendous that people are grossly attracted to. “People look at me like I’m some type of crazy, drugged-out, drug addict or something,” he said. “Don’t get entertained by that.”

Named after the Joy Division song of the same name, Atrocity Exhibition is Danny’s way of firing back at those who amuse themselves with his addictions. Drugs are a major danny-brown-3part of the album’s subject matter, but there are no more party-rap dance tunes. There is no more split personality. There is only one Danny Brown on Atrocity Exhibition, one that embraces decadence as a fact of life that is slowly killing him. Danny pulls listeners headfirst into his abysmal reality of addiction and depression, where death lurks around every corner.

The intro track “Downward Spiral” impeccably sets the tone of the album. Danny’s whacky whine enters almost immediately (“I’m sweating like I’m in a rave / Been in this room for three days) atop haphazard acoustic drums samples and ominous guitar twang. Danny paints a dark picture of drug use, sexual exploits, and disillusionment with fame, so vivid that I feel as if I’m temporarily inhabiting his nightmarish world.

Over the past few years, Danny has become well-known for his unorthodox, nasally vocal delivery. But for the first time on a Danny Brown project, the instrumentals that he hops on are just as whacked out as he is. Primarily produced by Paul White, Atrocity Exhibition’s beats are exceedingly chaotic and experimental.

The instrumental on “Rolling Stone,” produced by South African singer Petite Noir, features a skeletal groove with clunky bass lines and chilly chorus vocals, atop of which Danny spits steady but convicted bars. The beat on “Lost” sports a haunting, almost ghostly vocal splice from Chinese singer Lena Lim’s “Lian Zhi Huo.” Danny’s weaves his flows masterfully around the stop-start rhythm on this track.

Even the “bangers” on Atrocity Exhibition are a long way off from molly-popping mtmwmtu3ody4mde5mtqwnje4festival crowd-pleasers like “Dip” and “Smokin’ & Drinkin’” from Old. “Ain’t It Funny” employs a jarring, brittle synth sample of Nick Mason’s “Wervin,’” which complements Danny’s relentless, paranoid verses quite nicely. “When It Rain,” the album’s lead single, features spooky bass drones and nutty synth leads atop a booming drum beat. Danny delivers one of the fastest, most fiery flows of his career on the cut, sounding desperate and frightened half to death. Sure, Atrocity Exhibition has songs that boost BPMs, but you’re not gonna want to twerk to any of them.

As good as the beats are, however, Atrocity Exhibition is really all about Danny Brown. Almost all of the songs on this album, exempting “Tell Me What I Don’t Know” and the moody “From the Ground,” feature Danny rapping in his characteristic cooky high-pitched voice. Danny yelps like a savage animal on “Dance in the Water.” On “White Lines,” his voice quavers and croaks as he fears overdosing, rapping “I hope it ain’t ’bout my time to go.”

“Really Doe” is the only song to feature verses from other rappers; Earl Sweatshirt, Ab-Soul, and Kendrick Lamar spit on the track. None of them, however, not even King Kendrick, sound better over the sparkling Black Milk instrumental than Danny himself.

Despite Atrocity Exhibition‘s generally somber mood, Danny’s killer sense of humor seeps through the cracks on songs like “Ain’t It Funny” (“I can sell honey to a bee/In the fall time/Make trees/Take back they leaves”) and “Really Doe” (“That hoe want my piccolo/Smoking on that mistletoe”). No matter how much pain he may be feeling, Danny simply cannot resist the temptation of making a few fans chuckle.

“Get Hi,” the penultimate song, is the only real dud on the tracklist. Danny raps about his love for marijuana and the warm, buzzing nicely contrasts album’s otherwise despondent tone. But Cypress Hill’s B-Real lays down a hook that is way too sugary sweet for me to stomach.

Despite this minor blemish, however, Danny comes through with his most experimental, compelling project yet. It may be his best work. With Atrocity Exhibition, Danny Brown has shown fans and haters alike that he’s more than a mere junkie. He isn’t just a party-rapper. He is a human being. And he is true artist.

Grade: A

Favorite Tracks: Downward Spiral, Tell Me What I Don’t Know, Rolling Stone, Really Doe, Lost, Ain’t It Funny, Pneumonia, Dance in the Water, When It Rain, White Lines

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