The Breakdown: Atrocity Exhibition, by Danny Brown

Danny Brown is going further and further out. Or maybe it’s more down and inward. Since 2008’s Hot Soup, he’s been getting more atmospheric, more stylistically diverse, and more singularly identifiable. His latest release, Atrocity Exhibition, is his most abstract yet, and the most reliant on Danny’s unmistakable voice as the central instrument. Everything else is faded, distorted, bare, pulled back or pushed up and out of the way to make room for the man himself, the main attraction, Danny Brown in the depths of his depravity. The question is, will we follow him down?

In a year when a number of major hip-hop releases have courted a gospel-influenced production style, Atrocity Exhibition stands as an act of sonic defiance—a refusal to ride the uplifting currents of horns and voices that have come to characterize the sound of mainstream hip-hop in 2016. Instead of looking for the light, Danny chooses to double down on darkness, to wallow in it, swallow it whole and spit it back in the face of anyone within earshot.

The production is really what sets the album apart, both from what everyone else is doing these days, and from what Danny has done before this. It’s safe to say at this point that the dude can rap on absolutely anything, and while some of the more out-there beats make for an album that’s less casually listenable than most of his previous work, they create a sonic headspace that’s as compelling as it is grating.

The title is an allusion to the collection of stories by J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition, published in the 70’s and characterized by its fragmented structure and its exploration of psychosis, identity and celebrity, and the neverending horror-show that is modernity, an ever-present television screaming with static, a screen that you can’t turn off.

Danny’s album occupies the same territory more than forty years later, back and even more hyper-real than ever before, and still we can’t look away. It’s a car crash in slow motion, the bits of glass and twisted metal spiraling outwards from the point of impact. It’s a city decaying over time lapse, the abandoned houses moldering apart, their walls long ago torn open for the pipes and wires. It’s an overdose, a body moving in convulsions and spasms before coming finally to rest. It’s the skin rotting away from the face, leaving a scrap of hair, the bone-white skull, and a jagged gap where the front tooth once was.

  1. Downward Spiral

Produced by Paul White

When this first song came on, I was relieved to hear that Danny Brown is still as grimey and raunchy as he was when he dropped Old three years ago and XXX in 2011. Danny and his panicked-stricken inflections announces “I’m sweating like I’m in a rave / Been in this room for three days / Think I’m hearing voices”. While the last album ended in a drug filled haze, this album begins with a tortured come down punctuated by sporadic and thick instrumentation that is an off putting brew of disjointed samples mixed with slow meditative drumming. A fantastic introduction to the album and Danny Brown’s breakdown.

  1. Tell Me What I Don’t Know

Produced by Paul White

I love the driving instrumental on this track and how Danny settles into his more mellow flow to contrast his hyperactive yelps that have become his hallmark. “Tell Me What I Don’t Know” tells Danny’s story of getting wrapped up in the alluring life of drugs and violence only to be fall victim to their side effects. From getting locked up for drug dealing and gun possession to his friend being shot outside a liquor store, Danny is revealing the downfalls of the glamorized gangster lifestyle that isn’t just about “new Jordans and some bitches”. With strong songwriting and production to match, this song is a standout.

  1. Rolling Stone (featuring Petite Noir)

Produced by Petite Noir

I like what Danny does on this song. He shows the difficult duality of a touring rapper. He feels rich, but also feels forced to squander what he’s earned to maintain the facade of wealth. He feels obligated to give the audience the visceral ignorance they want from his music while he wants to provide them with something more meaningful. While all this is going on Danny is struggling with his own drug addiction, unable to stay completely sober, yet knowing that the over-indulgence he’s flirting with could ruin everything he’s worked for. While the message in the verses is potent and poignant, I just can’t get past the lackluster chorus on this one.

  1. Really Doe (featuring Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul & Earl Sweatshirt)

Produced by Black Milk

Here we go. This is the rappity rap, posse cut that really stands out on Atrocity Exhibition. While it deviates from the introspective, tortured themes of the rest of album, it feels good to hear four verses of pure braggadocia from four top-tier lyricists. With a minimal, yet extremely effective instrumental from Black Milk, Danny and the featured emcees are given a lot of space to display their lyrical prowess.

While Danny, Ab-Soul and Kendrick deliver strong verses lyrically, it’s Earl Sweatshirt’s incredible delivery that earns him the cleanup hitter position at the end of the track. Earl instantly grabs attention when he enters with a rousing, “Wish a motherfucker would” and is able to maintain a much higher level of energy than I’ve heard from him in the past couple years. It’s extremely refreshing to hear Earl snap out of his sleepy monotone depression raps and return to the kind of cadence that got me excited about him on his debut project. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the hell out of I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, but the delivery on this new verse is a return to form for Earl and I’m hyped to hear what he’s got in store next.

  1. Lost

Produced by Playa Haze

Here we have a short and not so sweet song where Danny snorts, smokes, and indulges in “pussy juicer than Shalamar curl bag”, whatever that is. Even though he’s deep in the sauce, he hasn’t hit absolute bottom: “Gotta screw loose / I’m cuckoo / Mentally disturbed / But still smart enough / To hit this bitch wit a rubber”. This song serves the album well, but doesn’t hold it’s own.

  1. Ain’t it Funny

Produced by Paul White

This is the wildest song on the album production-wise. I can’t imagine how Danny picked this beat and I couldn’t imagine any other rapper able to find the pocket on this EDM banger. It growls and pulsates while Danny’s one-of-a-kind flow punctuates the rhythm, it’s almost hypnotic. Not my favorite on the album, but I’m going to keep it around and see if it grows on me.

  1. Golddust

Produced by Paul White

I don’t know why, but I can’t rock with this one. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, but it seems like what is trying to be accomplished with the production and Danny’s performance was done better on other songs on the album.

  1. White Lines

Produced by The Alchemist

At this point in the album, Danny is starting to lose me. As much as I love Alchemist’s production, this song doesn’t grab me either. Sure, it adds to the vibe of the album and helps to move the project forward, but it doesn’t stand out in any meaningful way.

  1. Pneumonia

Produced by Evian Christ

Here we go, this is much more like it. I loved this song from the first time I heard it. There’s something about the bell sample in the beat and Danny’s contagious bouncy flow. The production from Evian Christ is grating, nasty and visceral. Danny’s wordplay is raunchy and braggadocious and I love it. I could, and have, listened to this song on repeat while at the gym. It does the trick.

  1. Dance in the Water

Produced by Paul White

You can really feel the UK Grime influence on this song. While Danny’s voice is unique, the instrumental and vibe of this song reminds me of something you might hear Dizzee Rascal or Skepta rap over. It’s unrefined and infectious. The vocal sample is chopped masterfully and the drums are layered and complicated over one of the best basslines on the album. While I didn’t love this song at first, I can say it’s really grown on me.

  1. From the Ground (featuring Kelela)

Produced by Paul White

This song is perfectly placed in the album. A slower, more thoughtful track is a much appreciated breather after the two high energy tracks preceding it. The shift in tone serves to show the manic-depressive nature of a drug-soaked touring rapper that this album is all about. Even though the song is about working hard to achieve success while “A lot locked up wishing they was like you”, it lacks the uplifting, joyful spirit that most started from the bottom-type tracks have. Instead Danny seems somber and lonely as he stares at the ceiling with the mentality that “it’s a cold, cold world but even hotter when you die”. I think what Danny is trying to say here is that the fantasy of the carefree easy lifestyle of a famous rapper is a myth and pretending that he’s on easy street the way a lot of famous musicians do would be disingenuous. He is acknowledging that he’s living his dream, but it isn’t all roses and Cadillacs.

  1. When It Rain

Produced by Paul White

There’s some really catchy production here. It’s clear that the chemistry between Danny Brown and Paul White is something special and I hope they continue to make frantic bangers for as long as they can make them this well. Danny showcases some of his fastest rapping while describing the continuing downward spiral that began at the beginning of the album. He says, “All fall victim for greed and lust / Who you ‘pose to trust when guns gone bust?” It seems Danny’s situation has become more dangerous and dire as he continues to slip into the bowels of his vices, and he responds by jumping headfirst into the chaotic fray: “When it rain, when it pour, get your ass on the floor”. While a lot of rappers will encourage their audience to resist the lures of the fast life, Danny seems to embrace it wholeheartedly, living in the moment, no matter how perilous.

  1. Today

Produced by Paul White

Danny makes a complete 180 on this song from the last. After jumping into the depths of depravity on the previous track, he begins to make a plea for caution. I doubt he’s had a turn of heart, it’s more likely the drugs turning on him. He’s still indulging in “Potent we smoking / A leave you choking”, but now paranoia is creeping in. He talks about cutting off his phone, keeping himself strapped and spits one of the most fearful hooks on the album as he repeats “Today today today / I say you never never never know / When ya time to go”. The instrumental backing Danny up is minimal, yet cuts through the mix with cymbal crashes and percussive elements. I love Danny’s performance and songwriting on this song and it fits perfectly in his progression through a substance-fueled haze.

  1. Get Hi (featuring B-Real)

Produced by Paul White

Speaking of a substance-fueled haze, here’s the token “get blunted” song. I had no idea how much I needed a B-Real feature on a Danny Brown song until I heard this. Both known for their insanely unique vocal deliveries and excessive drug use, these two are perfect for each other. I love the change of pace in production on this song too. From the chaotic, claustrophobic and teeth-gnashing tracks on the majority of the album, the production here from Paul White is like a blissful cloud floating over whatever living room Danny and B-Real are kicking back in. Great performances from each rapper and their chemistry is on point. Definitely the best, if not the only, kick back and vibe song on the album. A nice way to ease into the end of the album.

  1. Hell For It

Produced by Paul White

I think this is an appropriate ending to the album. The instrumental is a slow dreamy piano loop interspersed with distorted drums and bass that give the song the sinister feeling that is so pronounced on the project as a whole. Danny is still paranoid, still struggling to make it for himself and his family, and he vows to continue to believe in himself and his ability to make the music that has gotten him so far. He’s not giving up on the music and he sure isn’t giving up on the indulgences that brought him highs and lows and I don’t think I’d want it any other way. There’s a lot to like about this album and I can’t wait to hear where he goes next.

Henry Whittier-Ferguson & Micah Roehlkepartain