Before I pressed play on this album, I wasn’t sure what I was going to hear. We’ve heard Danny Brown evolve from his ground-breaking underground hit album XXX to the commercial friendly OLD. Though OLD wasn’t as solid as XXX, it wasn’t a complete disaster as many of the tracks transitioned into brilliant live numbers. I was afraid that Brown would abandon the art to make more club bangers on this new project — luckily, I was wrong.
‘Downward Spiral’, the opening track to Atrocity Exhibition, captures the essence of what listeners can expect from this album. In the opener, he mentions that he has been ‘sitting in this room for three days’, and it sure sounds like it; the crazy lo-fi sounds and distortions place him in the middle of a bad trip or a tormenting comedown. It’s at this point, I’m afraid (strangely, in a good way) to listen on — not that I thought it was going to be terrible, I was only afraid of the harrowing tales I might hear. Even after one song, he guarantees that this isn’t a club banger album, it’s experimental.
The following track, ‘Tell Me What I Don’t Know’, doesn’t sound like your typical Danny Brown track. He’s notable for his high pitched rap voice, but this track sees him strip that back and take on a serious tone of voice. This is the rawest track I’ve heard from him in a long time, and it sees him tackle personal issues such as the death of his best friend, depression and coming from the hood. Stripping back to his natural voice is effective in this song as it gives him a human personal element, especially when his usual sound depicts him as someone not from this planet. The layering of the varied sounds is not messy — from the strumming chords in the chorus and electronic sounds, they all compliment each other without it getting out of control.
Though it was early on in my listening, I knew that ‘Rolling Stone’ (ft. Petite Noir) was going to be one of my favourite tracks from the album. The heavy percussion opener and winding bass are almost seductive and psych-rock like. Atrocity Exhibition is not a rap album. I can’t put a name to what it is (apart from experimental), but it sounds like Brown, his producers and engineer all took a spaceship to another planet to record this as it’s too other worldly. Though it can be hit-and-miss with some listeners, I enjoyed the paradox between the rapidness of Brown’s flow to the chilled out nature of Petite Noir’s vocals. This track sounds like something off of Marilyn Manson’s The Pale Emperor release (the two should do a collab).
‘Really Doe’ is the track everyone, and their pet goldfish is talking about; I refused to listen to the track until the whole album was released. Though two of my favourite rappers (Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul) have verses, it’s Black Milk’s production I was excited to hear. Black Milk is a brilliant artist in his own right. His If There Is Hell Below album was one of my highlights from 2014, and ‘Scum’ (ft. Random Axe) and ‘Gold Piece’ (ft. Bun-B) were two of the hottest hip-hop tracks of the year. Along with haunting chimes and tribal-like (a speciality sound of Black Milk’s style) patterned drums this track’s instrumentals are very balanced. Danny Brown rhymes like a madman (seriously, does he own a rhyming dictionary?), Ab-Soul’s lyricism is stellar as per usual, Kendrick continues to RIP everyone with his supporting verses and Earl Sweatshirt showed he can spit fire, just in case you had forgotten.
Brown opens ‘Lost’ with the lines “I’m like Kubrick, with two bricks and hoes on the strip”. Not many rappers are capable with the skill of allocating imagery to lines like this, but he does it very well. ‘Ain’t It Funny’ sounds like complete madness in the best possible way. Though the opener suggested that this was going to be a drug comedown sort of album, this track sounds like he is in the middle of a rave or crazy nightmare (which ever one sounds more terrifying).
Psychedelic sounds are a clear theme of this release, and this continues on ‘Golddust’. Though it’s difficult to fault this album, if I had to criticise something off of it, it would be this track. Despite that the entire album sounds mental, this is the only track that sounds disorganised — the instrumentals dominate his vocals instead of working together and it ruins the balance the rest of the album has. Though it continues to get weirder, he does pick up his game again on ‘White Lines’, which sounds something like what you get when you combine cocaine madness with Bollywood. ‘When It Rain’ also exhibit’s this same vibe, instead it’s reminiscent of what it would be like to be stuck in the middle of a rave in Marrakesh (if that makes any sense).
If you’re looking for something that has elements of the club banger vibe he went for on his last album, the closest thing you will get to it is ‘Pneumonia’. If you listen closely, you’ll hear ScHoolboy-Q making sound effects in the background. Though, the only annoying thing is that it makes you think he is going to jump in and spit a verse, but it’s only a tease (perhaps he can do a remix in the future). As I mentioned, if you’re looking for something from this album to spin on the dance floor, this is the track for you.
‘Hell for It’ is a solid closer that gives listeners the feeling like they’ve gone through a weird and tormenting trip, but are now on the other side of it. It leaves listeners hopeful and reassured that Brown is going to be okay, despite the trials and tribulations of his life. The most powerful line is when he says “I lived through that shit so you don’t have to”. It’s like he is a sacrificial lamb who took the hit for all of us.
Atrocity Exhibition is one of the best albums I’ve heard by a rapper in a long time. I can’t remember the last time someone took this many risks on a project with this sort of fearless attitude. This album could have sounded terrible, but with the right producers on his side, they assisted in creating well-weaved and balanced instrumentals that are intricate in their nature. Danny Brown turned his back on twerk anthems to instead create art, and it’s a risk that places this album as one of the best experimental hip-hop albums of all time.
Written by Amy Smolcic
Release date: September 26th 2016, Warp Records