Danny Brown casts off the more user-friendly EDM touches that brought his previous effort ‘Old’ some mainstream attention in 2013, and drags his fourth LP ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ into an altogether murkier zone – both sonically and thematically. In the build-up to its release, much has been made of the album’s Joy Division-referencing title and Brown’s punk rock inclinations. And while lo-fi guitars and grungy feedback frequently reverberate around his jittery drug-fuelled dispatches, the album - issued on the Warp label – also taps into the grimier aspects of his Detroit home turf’s electronic lineage.
“I’m sweating like I’m in a rave,” Brown begins on opener ‘Downward Spiral’, establishing the album’s highly-strung tone with a narcotics-comedown swollen with paranoia and discomfort in which he refuses to answer the door, nauseous having not eaten for days. ‘When It Rain’, meanwhile, is an overwrought, turbulent juggernaut that bounces ghettotech references (Traxman and DJ Assault are both saluted) off crime-ridden blocks swamped with angel dust. “Doomed from the time we emerged from the womb/So to cope, drugs we consume,” he gasps.
Yet beyond this wired mix of post-punk anxiety, splintered techno elements and haunting soul samples, it’s Danny Brown’s rhyming ability that ultimately sees the LP flourish. As he puts it himself, he’s “nice with the bars, even the beat begs my pardon.” Brown constantly switches up flows, deftly weaving punchy pop culture homages into the off-base speedball stories, which makes for a compelling, if unnerving, concoction. Paul White, Alchemist, Black Milk, Petite Noir and Evian Christ handle the music, and while the tempo ebbs and flows, the ominous vibe never really lets up. Stellar posse cut ‘Really Doe’ gathers together Ab Soul, Earl Sweatshirt and Kendrick Lamar to spit scintillating raps over Black Milk’s pounding horror movie beat, which is shot through with a restlessly creepy bell ring, as ‘Today’ and ‘Pneumonia’ create an equally eerie minimalist flipside.
The only real respite comes in the form of ‘Get Hi’, a whimsical, woozy weed rap which features Cypress Hill’s B-Real on the hook and pays tribute to the 20th century’s jazz greats (and, inevitably, their extensive drug use.) “I’m Coltrane on Soul Plane”, declares Brown in between Miles Davis and Cotton Club namechecks, before explaining how he “hit the greenery, jaws go Gillespie/have a nigga shakin’ like epilepsy” (memorably mispronounced here as “epsilepsy”.)
The autobiographical closer ‘Hell For It’ details Danny’s formative years growing up in Detroit and his come-up in the rap game. It’s a stomping grand finale. “Stuck up in the hood, praying rap would get me out/Momma ‘bout to lose her house/Gotta figure this shit out,” he recalls, sketching out in rich detail his hard-scrabble rise from hustling drugs with his uncle (“Used to hide it in my closet/Type of shit that have a fiend crawling on his carpet”) to catching 12-hour bus rides to New York, shopping his demo and sleeping on studio floors.
By verse two he’s in full flow, dissing Iggy Azalea and lobbing lyrical grenades across the hip-hop landscape (“I’m knowing I’m the best, they compare skills to sales/Tell myself every day, ‘No, this shit ain’t real’/Radio don’t make you ill/Get a hit, they feel they’self/Respect for lyricism? In this game ain’t none left…”), before concluding his manifesto: “I just wanna make music, fuck being a celebrity/’Cause these songs that I write leave behind my legacy.”
It’s a surprisingly rousing wrap-up, with our protagonist sounding sharp and purposeful in marked contrast to the trembling wreck we discovered at the start of the LP. The song not only contextualises the coke-fuelled fresh hell on display earlier, it also offers pretty persuasive proof that, in terms of rapping pedigree, there aren’t many better than Danny Brown at this point.
Words: Hugh Leask (@HughSnoozeULose)
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