Album Review: Danny Brown – ‘Atrocity Exhibition’

Hip hop’s most unique voice treats us to a mind-trip


Danny Brown, Detroit rapper and who many consider a leading figure in the ‘new school underground’, has always been untested and unreachable in terms of singularity. His unique voice, flow and overall sound has allowed him to forge his own lane in the genre, gaining a surprisingly large following over the years. Having already released a tonne of mixtapes, EP’s and 3 studio albums, the guy has a deep and varied repertoire that has secured him respect from all kinds of hip hop heads. With that being the case, I really didn’t know what to expect from this 4th commercial outing ‘Atrocity Exhibition‘, an LP 3 years in the making. Danny has proved himself to be an artist that can switch up his style at any given moment. I suppose I expected the unexpected, and the unexpected turned out to be something good.

 

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If you ever needed an image to sum up Danny himself, well…

Often regarded the modern-day Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Danny Brown has never been one to shy away from acting different and refusing to fully conform to a more widely accepted sound. His off-kilter rapping style, often left-field beat choice and drug-fuelled lyrics come together to create what you’d think would come across as pretty niche – but have proven to be an attraction to a growing audience with each release. It’s not something I disagree with either, as the guy has really yet to put out a bad project. Everything he does musically, while maybe not grammy-deserving, is undeniably interesting to listen to. He finds new ways of fusing genres and twisting existing perceptions of modern hip hop to create what many would call… weird.

This was just the same case back in June when he dropped the first single, ‘When It Rain‘, for the long-awaited LP. To anyone that hadn’t listened to the MC before, it was a wonderfully crazy introduction to his world and how he expresses it. High-pitched bass and a vigorous (and varied) drum section run the track with this frenetic atmosphere, the double-time tempo making it a real trip. Danny goes extra hard to keep up with the runaway instrumental, spitting consistent and unrelenting verses without any sign of breathing. He paints a dark and tumultuous picture, throwing out threats and warnings to those that thought the hood in Detroit was easy “Time for the percolator / Murder music orchestrator / Point blank hollow tip circulator / Your ass lucky if you on respirator“. The hook is a brilliant too, with its allusion to heavy rain meaning ‘when it gets bad, it gets worse’ but also the idea of ducking when bullets rain down on you.

It’s no secret that even within his own albums/EP’s Danny likes to explore a variety of sounds, some not even that commonly associated with hip hop. On tracks like ‘Dance in the Water‘ and ‘Ain’t It Funny‘, both embodying some pretty layered and elaborate instrumentals, he delves into the utility of more alternative rock-infused drum loops and grandeur horn and guitar clips. The first is particularly enjoyable with its more tribal, pulsing flavour and a screaming hook that references an old Ice Cube verse with the ultra-catchy “Dance in the water / And not get wet“.

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Danny’s been active for almost 10 years, dropping mixtape after mixtape followed by his debut album ‘Hybrid‘ in 2010.

Don’t underestimate Danny’s lyrical ability either, often overlooked because of his high-pitched, raspy voice and ab-libs. On the old-school, Madlib vibes of the track ‘Lost‘, his drug-fuelled escapades take centre stage: “Credit cards separating / White lines on a mirror / Roll a 100 dollar bill / Now my sinus all clearer” while he fantasises about easy women and reminiscing about his life before rap. Even behind the deranged production of a track like ‘Golddust‘ he still takes the opportunity to self-criticise and admit to his drug addiction that’s taken hold since his fame grew “Lost control / Don’t have a soul / Myself I don’t know no more / Numbing up with drugs“.

It’s extremely admirable that such an erratic personally with a penchant for drugs and women can mask his flaws and setbacks behind an almost cartoonish delivery and the more than common spout of madness. Take one of my favourite cuts from the LP ‘Tell Me What I Don’t Know‘, a much slower, ambient song that pairs its echoing guitar with synth bass that I can only imagine was sampled from Blade Runner. It’s a much deeper cut too, Danny turning down his usual cadence for an almost normal voice as he remembers old friends he lost to prison or even to death; “We was so ambitious / All we really wanted was new Jordans and some bitches / Flashing bankrolls in the club taking pictures / Thinking we was grown men, really lil’ niggas“.

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It wasn’t until his sophomore album ‘XXX‘ that Danny found a real following.

You see what I mean by expect the unexpected. At times this unpredictability resonates with his creativity at an unreachable level, epitomised in low-key bangers like ‘Pneumonia‘ with it’s trap flavoured percussion and itchingly memorable hook “Made 30 bands in 30 minutes / Before I count it, I done damn near spent it” alongside one of the best posse cuts you’ll hear this year ‘Really Doe‘. With verses from Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt and a rattling bell-driven instrumental from Black Milk, it’s a match made in heaven and the track comes together in a barrage of lyrical ability that you’ll be craving to hear more of after the song ends.

Admittedly at other times though, Danny’s madness dives into an area not as enjoyable as what most of the LP has to offer. The track ‘White Lines‘, where the rapper verbally indulges in his love for narcotics, has an interesting flow and atmosphere to it but in the end it’s just not something that resonates with me. Such is also the case with ‘Today‘, where again Danny shines with a Andre 3000-type delivery, but is ultimately washed out by a flat instrumental and a weak hook. There may still be some interest to be found in these tracks but really they pale in comparison to some of the unfathomable heights this album reaches sometimes.

 

Verdict

Atrocity Exhibition‘ is certainly a special album. Unlike anything you’ll find across the genre hip hop, it encapsulates a growing trend in experimental music and the mindset of the artist that created it. Utilising sounds from not just across Western music, but also global compositions, it’s a real joy to listen to. Danny’s sense of uniqueness and separation from other facets of hip hop has already placed him on a pedestal before, but with this newest album he really asserts himself as a dark horse channelling the crazy energy of ODB paired with persona of a laid back stoner type. It’s not for everyone, it won’t turn the nay-sayers into Danny Brown super-fans, but his fourth LP showcases both his impressive awareness for forward-thinking production and his wonderfully unique persona, securing him as one of the most interesting characters the genre has to offer.

Highlights: Really Doe, Lost, Tell Me What I Don’t Know, Dance in the Water, When it Rain, Pneumonia 

7/10

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