Danny Brown Proves He’s Rap’s Altered Statesman on ‘Atrocity Exhibition’

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  • Kyle Roe
    Arts & Entertainment Editor

Detroit-born rapper Danny Brown seems to be situated in a constant drug-fueled downward spiral, or at least that is what he has been insisting word-for-word since his breakthrough mixtape XXX was released in 2011. As he declared on the album’s title track, “And it’s the downward spiral/Got me suicidal/But too scared to do it/So these pills will be the rifle.”

The anxiety-ridden phrase “downward spiral” is the name of the first song off Brown’s latest LP, Atrocity Exhibition, which itself is named after a noise-heavy Joy Division song about an insane asylum where spectators pay to see patients fight to the death — a possible play on the painful, and sometimes violent, episodes Brown portrays in his music. Much of the time he is drawing on his own life for material.  

However, not all the subject matter is heavy. Even when it is, Brown’s nonchalant, playful attitude manages to ease any emotional gravitas. His incessantly silly lyrics about partying and the stellar production backing his tracks (mainly from past collaborator Paul White), ranging from carnivalesque electro-swing to disparate bell-ringing bangers, don’t hurt either.

The lighthearted despair of “Downward Spiral” exemplifies this constant balance. On the track, Brown continues to lament the effects of unrelenting depression and the resulting isolation and self-medication in pain-ridden lines like, “Hennessey straight got my chest like a furnace/Drowning frustrations in an ocean of sin.” A forlorn, Wild West-style guitar note, drawn out and repeated, creates a hungover, strung-out atmosphere, . It feels like a scene out of Rango if the lead character wandered into the world of Red Dead Redemption. As he’s often admitted, Danny Brown’s escapes from the torments of his life are incrementally killing him as well.

The album quickly becomes autobiographical on the next track, “Tell Me What I Don’t Know,” as Brown’s voice switches from a higher to lower register, a common technique he uses to change the tone of his songs — as well as his personal message— from playful to serious.

He recalls cutting class to sell weed and “jumping dope fiends that’s owing us for credit” over frantic drums and space rock keyboards, before dropping some SAT words with, “taking turns catching sales/things copacetic.” Eventually, the cops catch up to him and his friends and a judge “gave us all probation/now we smoking Newports” instead of weed to circumvent state-mandated drug tests.

“Rolling Stone” sounds like a too-cool indie rock single, but with a hook smoothly sung by Belgian-South African crooner Petite Noir and a steady bass line as an anchor. It’s the most formulaic song on the album, and most of the lyrics seem like clichéd takes on Danny Brown’s familiar themes like, “Feeling like I’m not alive/But know I’m not dead,” or, “Getting high, feel along/But we all know/Life goes on.”

The most attention-grabbing track is the posse cut “Really Doe,” with features from Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and Earl Sweatshirt, and a beat by the versatile rapper/producer Black Milk, another storyteller of surreal life in inner-city Detroit. Between Brown’s vivid food/sex metaphors, Soul’s celebration of independence as a full-grown man and full-fledged rapper, Kendrick bragging about wealth and success without sounding corny, and Earl getting confrontational, everything clicks and listeners are transported out of Brown’s head for a few short minutes.  

From there the album enters a brief, laid-back “Que Sera” mode with “Lost.” Brown moves away from spitting about his checkered past and rap stardom over dramatic beats and settles into a cartoonish bravado where he’s equally comfortable. He states the key purpose of his individuality is to, “Show you that you can make it/Without acting like them/Do you lil nigga/And just get it.”

He implicitly asserts his eccentricity even further on the next track “Ain’t It Funny,” sampling the horns off of Dave Mason’s “Wervin”, accentuating their dissonant moments into an electro-swing dance fest that wouldn’t be out of place in a steampunk dystopian future.

Chaotic horns carry Atrocity Exhibition through “Golddust,” where Brown is in full forgetful partying mode (“Mimosa for breakfast/With a thick hoe from Texas”), but still reminds everyone of the demons he’s placating (“A mind so horrific/Images that I hide/So take a look inside”).

He also points out his family has been running from demons for generations in similar ways, and the hard-swallowed reality is his “whole family addicts/Floating through my bloodstream/Like I gotta have it.” The downward spiral is then a predetermined repetition of self-destructive impulses. Brown’s impulses transform a fun escape into a sort of genetic disease.

The album makes another sonic transition for the mid-tempo obligatory pill ode “White Lines,” keeping similar speed for “Pneumonia,” to which he compares the “sickness” of his rhymes and their contagious popularity. Other highlights include a complete change of feel in “From the Ground” thanks to soulful vocals from R&B singer Kelela over watery drums and ethereal chimes.

It’s back to regular business with “When it Rain,” a quasi-instructional track about how to react when “shots go off” in the almost nursery rhyme-like line, “When it rain/When it pour/Get your ass on the floor,” backed by bouncy drums and ominous, low end horns; a cocktail of adrenaline and terror.

“Today” has some of the smoothest drums I’ve heard on a Danny Brown song, with a children’s choir singing the titular refrain for the chorus, reminding you to not dawdle because death could be lurking around any corner. It feels like the relief-filled moments after a straining sprint, and sets a deeply relaxed tone for the rest of the LP.

If XXX was a tongue in cheek celebration of his hard-partying lifestyle and his second album Old was a partial reexamination of that lifestyle – especially in light of his fading youth and responsibilities toward his daughter – then Atrocity Exhibition is a self-aware return to Brown’s previous form with an acceptance of its generational inevitability. Due to repetition and a few confessional tweets, Brown’s problems with mental illness and addiction are as visible as they’ve ever been. Despite this, his perceptive and carefree acceptance of these struggles lends all the purposeful grotesqueness of Brown’s music a lovely uplifting aspect, unique to the act of overcoming.

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