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Danny Brown is an auteur. Hip-hop has a tradition of collaboration, but the Detroit rapper is a one-man show who, while he reps his own Bruiser Brigade and works frequently with a handful of producers, has a voice and vision completely his own. You can think of his progression over the last five years in filmic terms. If 2011’s XXX was the brilliant independent foreign film that was critically acclaimed and wildly successful and put him on the map, Old was the solid but safer domestic version, with higher production costs, a prettier cast, and many of the edges sanded off. Atrocity Exhibition, then, is the movie someone makes after they come back down to earth from making that tentpole project, a work predicated on the “one for me, one for them” mentality.
Brown’s individual releases need to be understood as part of a whole, and in each of them, he has an obsession with form. On Old, he took a throwaway line about getting jumped on the way to the grocery store to buy Wonder Bread from XXX and built a whole song around the incident, and he snakes references to his older work throughout Atrocity Exhibition. Take the title of the first song, “Downward Spiral.” It’s a direct nod to XXX’s opening track, where Brown prominently (and memorably) rapped: “it’s the downward spiral, got me suicidal/But too scared to do it.” By reaching back five years, Brown makes Atrocity Exhibition a brick in a larger edifice, perhaps a bookend to an implied trilogy that starts with XXX and ends here.
Structurally, Atrocity Exhibition finds Brown doubling down on familiar tropes from his last two records: once again he starts with a gripping opener, the mise-en-scène; following that are some shorter songs in rapid succession that do the dirty work of exposition; a back-half run that reckons with the hedonism that comes before it (that section here starts with the Kelela-anointed “From the Ground”); and then, finally, a stomach-churning closing track that is never triumphantly resolute but feels like an ending just the same.
But the references extend well beyond Brown’s own work, and well beyond hip-hop. “Downward Spiral” is of course an oblique Nine Inch Nails nod, and Brown, who sampled This Heat and Hawkwind on the same song on XXX, drags Atrocity Exhibition through an industrial, electronic, post-punk sludge, borrowing a title from Joy Division while releasing the album on Warp. The bass on “Rolling Stone,” a duet with South African singer Petite Noir, is pure New Order. “Ain’t It Funny,” with its bold horns, recalls the Stooges’ flirtations with free jazz and Bauhaus at their most bombastic.
The thirty-five-year-old Brown has an old-head mentality as a rapper: play a song and he’ll rap on it. Make any beat and he’ll rap on it. It’s about rhymes, wordplay, and (for lack of a better term), bars. This approach isn’t currently fashionable, but there’s a pleasure in hearing someone else’s joy at putting words together—Brown’s old-school bent intermittently hits some delirious highs, from “Slice your tomato if you owe us for the lettuce/Running through the sack of D sorta like Jerome Bettis,” to “Rocks about the size as the teeth in Chris Rock’s mouth.”
The potential pitfall to this word-drunk approach is sometimes his songs just aren’t easy on the ears. The production here sounds wonderful—frequent collaborator Paul White is credited with 10 songs, and the two have an easy chemistry, because both indulge in coloring outside traditional genre lines (White’s collaborative album with Open Mike Eagle from earlier this year, Hella Personal Film Festival, is kind of like the quieter, gentler, non-evil version of this album, pulling from a different set of rock influences). But Brown sometimes lapses into his Old flows, that idiosyncratic style where he falls off beat, gets in front of it, or simply yells above it. He avoids the frat-baiting EDM songs like “Dip” and “Smokin & Drinkin” that pocked Old here, even though singles like “When It Rain” (more vintage Brown than anything from the past five years) and “Pneumonia” flirt with that sound. But fortunately they’re too rough around the edges, too jumpy, too dark to soundtrack a scene like this. To its credit, Atrocity Exhibition balances its sonic elements and never slips into the mush of guitars and bad ideas that threatened to infiltrate rap at the dawn of this century. White, Brown’s most gifted and consistent collaborator, keeps things at an even keel.
No matter what’s going on with the music, Brown’s acute emotional writing is once again on full display. Where XXX seemed to promise a way out, Old reflected (and sometimes reveled in) the lifestyle afforded him through his breakout success. This record, as dark, dingy, and uncomfortable as it is, continues to suggest something deeper is haunting Brown. “Everybody say, you got a lot to be proud of/Been high this whole time, don’t realize what I done/‘Cause when I’m all alone, feels like no one care/Isolate myself and don’t go nowhere,” he offers. He so internalizes all of his demons that, for the third record in this implied trilogy, you start to worry—is he irredeemably lost? Is his pain a response to his upbringing in Detroit, ground zero for armchair sociologists looking for a symbol of American decay? How long before the dam finally breaks? The great “Lost” here brings all these concerns to a head.
And then there’s “Really Doe,” produced by Detroit compatriot Black Milk, which juts out on the geography of the album because it features guest rappers (B-Real merely shows up for the hook on “Get Hi”) and also because it’s the only song not directly about Brown’s demons. It’s a fun track, and Earl Sweatshirt does that thing where he acts like he’s not rapping but ends up murdering everyone anyway while expending as little energy as possible. “I was a liar as a kid, so now I’m honest as fuck,” Earl offers, his unwavering delivery always imbuing what he raps with a startling amount of intimacy. You sometimes wish Brown could hit these more casually real notes more frequently, like he did on the origin story “EWNESW” from XXX or the blackout bars of “Greatest Rapper Ever” and “White Stripes” from 2010’s The Hybrid. But Brown is too good a writer and too focused on the whole not to carry heavy feelings into all his songs, like “some people say I think too much/I don’t think they think enough,” from “Rolling Stone,” and “your work killing fiends/‘cause you cut it with Fentanyl,” from “Ain’t It Funny.” These reflective lines are the work of a smart writer with an eye for hard-earned detail, and Atrocity Exhibition finds Brown back behind the lens, capturing raw emotion with grainy 16mm.Share