Review: Danny Brown - 'Atrocity Exhibition'

Written By Reece Hooker on 09/30/2016

review-danny-brownThe opening track of Joy Division’s Closer, the last album before Ian Curtis’ tragic suicide, is Atrocity Exhibition. It’s an apocalyptic, gnarling song that writhes ferociously underneath the vacuous vocals of Curtis, who grapples with a descent into what ultimately became his end. At one point, Curtis sings of tourists peering into an asylum, the titular exhibition of ‘atrocities’: “For entertainment they watch his body twist/Behind his eyes he says, ‘I still exist’.”

In his own Atrocity Exhibition, Danny Brown makes no secret of how allegorical he sees his life aligning with Ian Curtis’. Depression, addiction and suicidal thoughts have been hallmarks of Brown’s dark discography since The Hybrid, but it’s never felt as grim as it does on Atrocity Exhibition. Whereas XXX would interchange sniffs of Adderall with hilariously creative punchlines and Old neatly compartmentalised it onto two sides, Atrocity Exhibition's narrative bounces from rock bottom to dizzying highs with volatility that both grips and unsettles.

Album opener Downward Spiral sets the direction with a visceral, gritty portrait: there’s drug-fuelled threesomes, a swollen jaw and days spent without eating. It’s a good disclaimer for what’s to come. The album is often abrasive, trading out the club-ready bangers of Old’s Side B for a cavalcade of intriguing beats ranging from grungy rock loops to extravagant carnival productions.

Where Atrocity Exhibition shines is its sheer diversity. It’s the largest area of growth from Brown, an artist who has boldly experimented and expanded on every major release of his career. The efforts to be diverse were too clear on Old, to the extent he drew explicit lines between the isolated, wrenching tracks like Lonely and the A-Trak-produced EDM banger Dip. It was fine, but it was also too jarring and gave the album’s second act, reserved for ‘festival songs’, a sense of artificiality to it, fair or not.

Atrocity Exhibition falls victim to none of those pitfalls. Much like the protagonist in J.G. Ballard’s novel of the same name, Danny Brown’s narration on Atrocity Exhibition is inconsistent and incoherent. Trapped in a self-admitted “downwards spiral” on a string of heavy tracks, Atrocity Exhibition unexpectedly jags out for an excellent posse cut on Really Doe. Roping in an all-star line-up of Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt to rap over a Black Milk beat, the track is bookended by the open question of “Will I ever find my way?” on the previous track and the destructive declaration “I’m like Kubrick with two bricks” on the song following.  

On a lesser album, shifting from lonely contemplation to a bouncy posse cut could fatally kill the mood. However, on such a heavy album, these brief reprieves are almost necessary to refresh the listener.

It also serves as a vital intermission for a scene change.  Downwards Spiral introduces us to Danny trapped in his room for days on end, ignoring the knocks on the door. Interrupted by Really Doe, we re-enter at Lost to find Danny with prostitutes in Las Vegas, watching pornography and giving his best Tony Montana tribute on the balcony.

In this middle stanza, the album hits its euphoric peak. Ain’t It Funny and Golddust are full throttle, chaotic pieces of sheer, ballsy brilliance. The album morphs into a circus of sheer absurdity: mariachi horns, clattering drums and chunky guitar lines all collide underneath Danny’s yelpy vocals straining with urgency.

Juxtaposed with the grounded, biographical lyrics curtly rapped by Danny’s measured cadence earlier in the album, this portion of Atrocity Exhibition pushes absurdism to its limit: jewels are compared to the size of Chris Rock’s teeth, there’s the persistent image of coke snorted with a hundred dollar bill and “nose bleeds on red carpets” apparently just “blend in”.

Juxtaposition is a familiar device present through the past three Danny Brown albums, but this is perhaps the most effective integration. Danny covers standing “in school hallways on a burnout celly” to getting “powder stains on [his] Balmain” jeans in a matter of tracks and despite traversing from one end of the socioeconomic spectrum to the other, there’s the underlying commonalities of depression, loneliness and release granted only by drugs that remains eerily constant.

The album has a comedown on White Lines, an appropriate bridge between the unsustainable high and everything else around it. The album’s second half peters off from a cogent narrative, instead dissolving into territory well trodden by Danny Brown: doing lots of drugs and having lots of sex.

Although the narrative of the album becomes a little displaced in the album’s later stages, the music thankfully remains of a high standard. From the Ground is a slower pop turn with a handy assist from Kelela on the hook and features Danny’s subdued best, daring to breathe a few positive bars. We’ve become accustomed to the grim signoffs, but it’s refreshing to catch Danny murmuring “Let’s get it” as the track rolls to an end with a glimmer of hope.

Whilst he remains captive to a hereditary substance addiction, From the Ground sees Danny consider something resembling salvation: using music, the outlet which has been his therapist and breadwinner, as a channel to showcase his brilliance and leave a legacy

Appropriately, the next track Let It Rain is the most complete song Danny has ever recorded. It’s a lyrically strong hip-hop track with captivating flow that is falling over itself to impress with bar after bar of substance. It’s the kind of rap song that necessitates multiple playbacks just to appreciate the depth to it.

The closing track on the album Hell For It feels almost unnecessary after the emotional journey we’ve been taken on, but it serves an important purpose. Whether for his fans or himself, Hell For It is an implicit promise that Danny isn’t going to follow Ian Curtis’ footsteps too literally.

Yes, he may crib Ian Curtis’ song titles, borrow a line and yes, he too feels like an atrocity on exhibition as he tours the world playing songs documenting his own demons. But whereas Ian Curtis tragically never saw an album past Closer Danny Brown finishes with a fierce eye to the future, promising in the album’s waning bars “I’m a give ‘em hell”.