Watching the music video for When It Rain, the lead single to Danny Brown’s upcoming album Atrocity Exhibition, is a surreal experience. Aside from the coiled menace of the beat, or the eerie, 80’s home-video stylings of the clips, the most confounding thing is that you actually get to see Danny Brown rapping. It feels wrong somehow for that voice, that high, raspy, coked-up voice to actually be coming out of a human being. One of hip-hop’s master stylists, on record Brown rarely sounds like a person as he tells demented tales about a particularly miserable brand of debauchery, instead he sounds like the devil himself.
Brown has long stood out from the hip-hop crowd. His tempos are higher, and his voice is drier, but more than anything else, Danny Brown knows exactly who he wants to be. After toiling away in the gang culture and hip-hop scene of his hometown, Detroit, for years, Brown first rose to prominence when he was signed to Fool’s Gold Records. Whilst they have diversified in recent years, Fool’s Good were typically an indie rock label, emblematic of what Brown aspires to as an artist. Instead of comparing his most recent album, Old to those by other rappers, he compared it to Kid A. He claims that Atrocity Exhibition is influenced by Joy Division. He makes no bones about the heights he aspires to, but unlike most artists who make similar claims, Brown lives up to them.
The key tool in Brown’s sonic arsenal is his incredibly distinctive voice. Admittedly said voice takes some getting used to, and most listeners are understandably repelled by it at first, since it doesn’t obey any of rap’s standard rules. In a genre built around “authenticity”, Brown deliberately raps in a voice far from his natural one. He intentionally stretches himself up an octave, transforming himself from the commanding presence he naturally seems, into a deranged, borderline psychotic one. His flows are scattered and manic, yet oddly playful when he wants them to be. His lyrics are mostly concerned with comically over-the-top debauchery – “if it’s smelling sweet, might lick it for an hour / even if it’s sour, might lick it in the shower” – but sometimes he hides powerful double meanings in his hook-ridden verses. On the aforementioned When It Rain, the main hook “when it rain, when it pour, get your ass on the floor” serves as a double entendre, one meaning being a clubbing mantra, and the other as a warning to duck under a rain of bullets.
Furthermore, he’s not afraid to make his records extremely conceptually deep and heavy. His breakout mixtape, XXX follows a downward spiral of substance abuse and extreme promiscuity, before closing out the final track, 30 with the lines “the last 10 years I been so f**king stressed / tears in my eyes, let me get this off my chest / thought of no success got a n***a chasing death / doing all these drugs in hope of OD’ing next, triple-X”. It’s a crushing note on which to end a bleak mixtape, and when he announced that Old was going to be about maturation, many listeners were thankful simply that Brown had made it that far. However, even that record proved to be unrelentingly dark. The final track, Float On is all about how Brown relies on substances to just make it through each day in the music business – “rolling up this dope to cope I float on”. It’s similar subject matter to that explored by artists like Future, but where Future’s songs sound tragically glamorous, Brown’s just sound terrifying and sad.
For Atrocity Exhibition, Brown has actually signed to Warp Records, the label typically know for experimental electronica like Aphex Twin. It would be easy to take that as a sign that Brown is courting EDM even more than he did on Old, but When It Rain and Pneumonia seem to prove the contrary. Instead, he’s burrowing even further into the “Danny Brown sound”, frantically rapping over anxious, off-kilter beats. Brown’s music is easier to describe in terms of emotions than sounds, simply because his beat selection is so varied, and his rapping is so versatile, but even when he chooses a beat seemingly outside of his typical style, he still makes the track sound like himself. Brown’s music is the sound of panic and confusion, the sound of blocking out ever-present anxiety with sensations. The stories he tells are tragic and painful, but also electrifying.