Atrocity Exhibition seems like something of a leading title for a Danny Brown album, given that any of his albums could comfortably bear it without seeming out of place, but it’s actually quite a fitting one for his new record. His previous two albums were both dark and experimental, with beats and lyrics that stood apart from the hip-hop crowd. Atrocity Exhibition doesn’t have the same kind of evolution that Old had from XXX, but what it does have in spades in polish, and creativity. With this album, Danny Brown has perfected his unique style, and created his best record yet.
Whilst Old hid its haunting stories about addiction in party-ready EDM tracks, Atrocity Exhibition makes no such concessions. The two tracks that approach dance music, Dance in the Water and standout Ain’t It Funny are both a mess of noisy, crunchy samples and wailing minor chords. Ain’t It Funny is particularly menacing, with its blaring horns and wheezing bassline evoking something akin to a panic attack. The rest of the album is more in the vein of XXX, albeit with even more off-kilter, confounding stylistic choices. The opening track The Downward Spiral (the album’s lineage is firmly placed in angsty rock like Nine Inch Nails and Joy Division) sounds more like swamp-rock than anything resembling hip-hop, and it kind of proves Brown’s long standing claim that he can “rap over anything” that he handles it so deftly.
Most of the tracks on the album are produced by Brown’s partner in crime, Paul White. He worked on many of the tracks on XXX and Old, but he takes the reins on Atrocity Exhibition, and manages to craft a totally cohesive world for Brown’s disturbed stories. Even the tracks that stand out from the pack feel like logical parts of a whole. The most notable of these is Really Doe, easily the best posse cut since 1Train. Between a beat that sounds like someone going HAM on a xylophone, a croaky hook from Kendrick Lamar, and a potential verse-of-the-year from Earl Sweatshirt – “I’m at your house, like “why you got your couch on my Chucks?”” – the track is fantastic, and a good piece of evidence for why posse tracks should appear more often.
Brown’s previous albums explored the ways he covers up his trauma, but Atrocity Exhibition feels more like he’s addressing the trauma itself. There’s still numerous mentions of substance abuse as a means of masking pain – “lost my brain, going insane / self-medicate is how I cope” – but he talks very directly about the violence he witnessed during his childhood (he grew up in Detroit during the peak of the crack epidemic) – “last night homie got killed at the liquor store”. His descriptions of depression are so direct they’re almost too much to bear – “feeling like I’m not alive / but I know I’m not dead” – but Brown gives some leeway (although less than on prior albums) through his always funny wordplay – “appraisal the wrist watch / the rocks bout the size / as the teeth in Chris Rock’s mouth”.
More than anything else, Atrocity Exhibition feels like peak Danny Brown. It’s the album you get when Brown finally peels back any pretence of populism or hope, and all you’re left with is a heartrending look into a tortured soul. In an insanely oversaturated field, Brown still manages to stand out as particularly unique from the hip-hop crowd. He’s one of the genre’s most divisive artists, and also probably one of its best, but first and foremost Danny Brown is unmistakably himself.