Son Raw’s got your couch on his chucks, motherfucker.
Danny Brown is a music obsessive who has seen some shit. This may seem obvious, but after decades of rapping hustlers, hustling rappers, and nerds who’ve studied the game without leaving their houses, this crucial alchemy of real life experience and encyclopedia musical knowledge is an evolutionary advantage — one Brown’s keenly aware of. Us music critics love “real shit” but we get bored easily, and it’s not hard to imagine Danny Brown flicking through the same endless stream of music as we do, looking for that next shit.
This self awareness is a gift and a curse: XXX was “made to get great reviews” and boy did it work. But Old, which balanced his turn up and lyrical sides a little to consciously, ultimately felt a bit disjointed. We anointed it our album of the year in 2013, but personally I ended up returning to side one far more often than the latter half, even as the EDM tunes propelled Brown’s career.
Even with that in mind, here’s one question I didn’t expect to ask in this review: Why is Danny Brown putting out the most fire post-punk album of the 2000s?
Backed by IDM survivors Warp and mostly produced by England’s #1 sampledelic cratedigger Paul White, everyone expected Atrocity Exhibition to showcase Brown’s weirder, electronic tendencies, shepherding him from EDM to something deeper and more sophisticated. One listen through Atrocity, and that’s surely not the plan. Instead, he makes a complete left turn. Sure, first single “Rain” hints at Ghettotech and Footwork, but overall, Atrocity Exhibition sees Brown fully embracing the out of control rock star persona he’s become known for, both sonically and lyrically.
Pere Ubu, Talking Heads, and Joy Division jostle for space with contemporary trap, boom bap missives, and noisy electronics, but above all else, Danny Brown has gone full glam. Recorded in London, the album’s dark, claustrophobic quality is less “Bowie in Berlin” than Iggy Pop: a motor city maniac completely unapologetic about his drug use even as it’s destroying him. That’s no exaggeration—I dare you to listen to this alongside the lyrics without getting concerned for Brown’s mental and physical health.
If the author isn’t dead, this album will finish him off. The rockstar fetish goes beyond sex, drugs, and bad behavior too; Atrocity Exhibition’s lyrics are often short and clipped, punk minimalism instead of Rakim inspired stretches. Of course, this dovetails neatly with what’s currently going on in Atlanta as well, but there’s zero regard for that city’s pop instinct. You can almost imagine Brown loving the latest Young Thug mixtape but also chuckling while thinking, “Oh, you guys think THAT’S weird? Wait ’til you hear THIS…”
All of this should make Atrocity Exhibition a tough listen, but unless you’re part of the conservative rap coalition, it never is. While it’s easy to imagine Fool’s Gold throwing their hands up in confusion when faced with the album’s relentless darkness and passing this one to Warp, Danny Brown is too smart, too talented, and too patient to fuck it up. Unlike Old, which neatly divided its songs into sections, Atrocity Exhibition’s bouillabaisse of influences is so vast and the collision of styles come so quickly, that ultimately, it’s hard to imagine anyone else coming up with this specific album.
Even as a listener, it’s hard to keep up as Brown pulls the rug from under you: “Ain’t it Funny” and “Golddust” go full glam before we get “White Lines,” a nursery rhyme set to Alchemist’s weirdest beat ever. “Pneumonia” is straight screwfaced trap but somehow “Dance in the Water” and “From the Ground” follow that up with afro-beat and icy “real rap,” respectively. Take it as it comes, and Danny Brown has just released the best album of the year. Walk in with expectations and demands and prepare to be confounded and frustrated, no fucks given. Or to put it another way, this is a terrible rap record but the best music you’ll hear this year.
And yet for all of its musical eclecticism, the hardest part of this album is right there in the title: listening to this thing means a front row seat to Danny Brown’s self destruction. I mean, I’m hoping for a happy ending here: Iggy Pop’s still around, Bowie and Lemmy lived (fairly) long lives, and Keith Richards will outlive us all, but this is an album about self destruction, and as much as I’ll enjoy the tunes, no one wants Brown to Ian Curtis it.
Which brings us back to post punk, a genre taken over by middle-class collegiate smart asses with large record collections. Danny Brown’s true to life recklessness and musical fearlessness just made their entire recorded output seem irrelevant in one fell swoop, capturing that genre’s raised middle finger and ability to stare into the abyss and find meaning. I just hope it doesn’t consume him, both for his own sake, and because I’m sure he’s talented enough to make a light hearted Danny Brown album sound just as great. Until then, allow me to repeat myself with a slight variation: Atrocity Exhibition, best post-punk album…Ever.