Many listeners will be drawn to Danny Brown’s ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ by the formidable posse cut ‘Really Doe’, featuring four rappers – Brown, Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt – at the top of their respective games. And if the rest of the album had sounded like ‘Really Doe’, it probably would have been one of the best rap albums of the year. As it turns out, the rest of the album doesn’t sound much like ‘Really Doe’; in fact, it sounds unlike any other hip hop album.
Brown‘s commitment to presenting the good, the bad and the ugly of his sex-and-drugs lifestyle is more in line with the warts-and-all style of rock acts like Velvet Underground or Iggy Pop than with hip hop’s traditional celebration of drugs and debauchery. In an interview with Complex, Brown says “if you’re tell ’em ’bout getting high, you better tell ’em ’bout the hangover too”, but he subverts expectations by giving us the hangover before the high, with opener ‘Downward Spiral’ demonstrating the rapper’s damaged psyche: “I’m sweating like I’m in a rave/ Been in this room for three days/ Think I’m hearing voices/ Paranoid and think I’m seeing ghosts-es”. His deranged, shrieking delivery perfectly matches the darkness of the lyrics, complemented by Paul White‘s production, which sounds like a cut from some forgotten sixties psych-rock band; the sparing use of percussion makes it hard to tell where the beat falls, making for a disconcerting listening experience.
After ‘Really Doe’, the album turns into a nightmarish party, with ‘Aint It Funny’ its hallucinogenic, hysterical climax. The track is a demented party banger, a graphic depiction of a night of debauched drug use gone too far – “Nose bleeds/ red carpets/ but it just blends in/ Snapping pictures/ feeling my chest being sunk in”. White‘s frantic, dissonant beat, which recalls The Bomb Squad‘s production for albums like Public Enemy‘s ‘Fear of Black Planet’, echoes Brown’s disorienting, coke-fuelled lyrics.
The pairing with Cypress Hill’s B-Real on ‘Get Hi’ makes perfect sense: two of the most distinctive, exaggerated deliveries in hip-hop. B-Real‘s hook recalls his “I want to get high, so high” from the opener to Cypress Hill‘s classic ‘Black Sunday’ album. In the first verse, Brown makes several allusions to classic jazz musicians – including, in order, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Tommy Dorsey and Dizzy Gillespie – to create an extended metaphor for weed-smoking. While the jazz metaphor is light-hearted on the surface, by alluding to a series of black musical geniuses (with the exception of the white Dorsey) Brown indicates his lofty artistic ambitions.
On previous efforts ‘XXX’ and ‘Old’, Brown demonstrated his considerable talents; with ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ he has created an album of weird, twisted hip hop to match his idiosyncratic style. By steering away from many of the conventions of contemporary rap and hip hop, Brown hasn’t just made one of the best albums of the year, but one of the most exhilaratingly original hip hop albums in recent memory.
‘Atrocity Exhibition’ is out now via Warp Records.