In Danny Brown’s fourth studio album, Atrocity Exhibition, he makes a departure from his previous album, Old, where his somber messages were often lost under the energy of festival-goer oriented party anthems. In Atrocity exhibition Danny retreats to a deranged rabbit hole where he finds his voice as he grapples with haunting memories. The album is a personal examination of Danny’s unforgiving past, in which he illustrates the trials and tribulations that he faced as a young drug dealer, as well as during dark periods of drug abuse, withdrawal, and imprisonment. As the album progresses, Danny drags us with him into a pit of desperation where he explores the emotions that are prodded to the surface by memories of his past. Danny raps over instrumentals that become increasingly uncanny, delivering songs that are genuinely inspired by his personal experiences, which Danny points out is rare among today’s conventional rappers. In Danny’s initiative to deliver organic material, or “real sh*t” to his audience, he enlists a cavalry of features who are motivated by a similar purpose: Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, Earl Sweatshirt, Petite Noir, Kelela, and B-Real. Danny utilizes producers such as The Alchemist, Black Milk, Evian Christ, and Paul White.
The steel guitars that initiate our descent into Danny Brown’s subconscious on his opening track, “Downward Spiral”, sound like we are stepping into a Western, but instead we fall face first into Danny’s complicated and confusing past as a drug dealer, and the drug abuse that left him lonely, lost, and suicidal. “Downward Spiral” references the opening track on Danny Brown’s 2011 album XXX, “and it’s the downward spiral, got me suicidal”. Danny’s use of drugs to ease his anxiety and depression is a cycle that leads to more depression, and subsequently, more drug use. Despite his recognition of his drug problem, and desire to change, Danny is overcome by a feeling of helplessness. “Your worst nightmare for me is a normal dream”, Danny raps in a shrill, abrasive tone as he describes the effects of drug addiction, and the pain of withdrawal.
“I’m sweating like I’m in a rave
Been in this room for 3 days
Think I’m hearing voices
Paranoid and think I’m seeing ghost-es”
“Tell me what I don’t know” prompts a change of pace as Danny adapts an alternate persona with mellow vocals that contrast with the high-pitched sharpness of his typical tone. The spacy synthesizers and the sporadic whistles of the main instrumental are comparable to what one would imagine aliens playing at recess might sound like. In the lyrics, Danny talks about selling drugs as a kid in Detroit, coping with the death of his friend, and frequent run-ins with the law, which eventually landed him in prison. “Tell Me What I Don’t Know” could be Danny saying that he has seen it all. It is his critique of rappers who rap about fake issues to adopt a desirable reputation in the Hip-Hop community, while his raps are genuine, and influenced by real life experiences.
The drums in “Tell Me What I Don’t Know” are similar to those used in Joy Division’s “Atrocity Exhibition”, which Danny Brown not only employed as his album title, but also cited as a significant source of inspiration. We can see the influence of the new wave post-punk movement throughout Danny’s Atrocity Exhibition as he breaks the conventional mold of rap music in utilizing avant-garde instrumentals and filling every second of the album with electronic mayhem.
In “Rolling Stone” Petite Noir’s vocals resemble those of 80s British electro-pop band Depeche Mode. Petite Noir’s hook vocals are rich, sexy, and laid-back, contrasting with Danny’s spastic rap flow. The background melody consists of a haunting drone of hums. Danny references Bob Dylan’s “Rolling Stone”, suggesting that he “feels lost and alone with no direction.” In addition, there is once again clear resemblance between Danny’s “Rolling Stone”, and Joy Division’s “Atrocity Exhibition”, with almost identical bass hooks. Danny also tries to channel the isolation that Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis expresses during “Atrocity Exhibition” as he describes losing his mind and descending into a dark place.
The arrival of “Really Doe” on the queue demands cranking up the volume and rolling down the windows. Danny Brown raps alongside Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and Earl Sweatshirt. The instrumental consists of a simple beat and arpeggiated descending bells. Earl “puts his foot down” towards the end of the song, “You a mouse that the falcon picked up, So disrespect will get you checked like the top of the month, I was a liar as a kid so now I’m honest as f**k”. He steps in casually yet ferociously attacks the verse, annihilating Kendrick, Danny, and Ab-soul; and a song where Kendrick has the weakest verse is bound to be great.
“When It Rain” takes us deep into dark cavernous abyss of Danny Brown’s subconscious, and to the heart of the album. The relentless stream of Danny’s restless vocals, the repetition of a fidgety synth line, and the use of a vibraslap create a sense of frenzied paranoia throughout the song, and leave the listener uneasy. “When It Rain” isn’t exactly easy to listen to, but Brown’s success in rapping over such a hectic instrumental proves his ability to generate a masterpiece out of something that would be unlikely to inspire other artists.
During the track “Dance In The Water”, Danny samples Ungawa Pt. II (Way Out Guiana)/ the Devil Lives Inside My Husband’s Body (1982)- by Pulsallama. Although no one would expect this song to be sampled, Danny takes it and runs. He continually repeats, “Dance in the water, and not get wet, not get wet, not get wet”, describing his risky lifestyle that ultimately led to his great success. This song also defines the risks that Danny takes in his career to break down the conventional walls of rap while building on what has already been created by former artists, and venturing into uncharted territory. As a result, Atrocity Exhibition could be hugely influential towards the future of rap or at least his future as an artist.
Henry McDevitt (277)