Monday, October 3, 2016

album review: 'atrocity exhibition' by danny brown

So here's something you probably know: as a rapper and artist, I tend to like Danny Brown. 

But if I'm being brutally honest, there's a part of me that likes the idea of Danny Brown and writing about him almost more than his music itself, mostly because he's the sort of fascinating artist you don't see very often anymore. His critically acclaimed breakthrough XXX held a fascinating split: a rapper who could descend into depravity that was borderline cartoonish, but who could also step back into more vividly detailed and conscious content, the sort of material that didn't just show a more thoughtful MC but aos provided the context to why he cut loose the way he did. That wildness was explored even more thoughtfully on his 2013 follow-up Old, which I did review, but outside of some harrowing darkness the dramatic contrast felt a little skewed, and I ultimately didn't find the record as enjoyable as I was hoping. 

From there, though, Danny Brown seemed to drift from project to project in a way that either implied he was just screwing around or that something had gotten knocked loose in his brain. Aside from saying he was writing a children's book inspired by Dr. Seuss - which if this exists I need to find - he also would show up for guest verses in all sorts of odd places, from the 'Detroit vs. Everybody' compilation which had him working with Eminem and Big Sean to working with Freddie Gibbs and Madlib on a song off of Pinata to collaborating with Aesop Rock and Busdriver. Overall, we haven't seen a lot of Danny Brown over the past few years, to the point where he showed up twice on the new Avalanches album Wildflower - including its best song opposite MF Doom 'Frankie Sinatra' - it was a legit surprise. And I'll admit it was a real surprise to hear he was dropping a record called Atrocity Exhibition on a new label with a posse cut that included Kendrick, Ab-Soul, and Earl Sweatshirt - because of course it did. Much more interesting was that the executive producer was Paul White, who you might recognize from earlier this year on the collaboration project with Open Mike Eagle on Hella Personal Film Festival, which remains my favourite hip-hop project of this year. But Danny Brown seemed to be working with a lot of people and styles I liked, and considering this record was reportedly his most wild and eclectic to date, I had to hear it... so what did we get?

Huh... this was interesting, that's for sure. I can definitely say you probably won't hear a hip-hop record with production this wild and out there all year, pulling from all manner of demented niches that definitely don't just remain with hip-hop - and Danny Brown proves that he's definitely a rapper who can match it for insane energy. And yet for as sonically bizarre as this record can be, I wish that the actual content resonated more strongly with me, or actually cut into meatier subtext that Danny Brown hadn't already touched before on XXX or Old. Don't get me wrong, this is a great record in a year where we've had a lot of great experimental hip-hop, from Death Grips to Ka, from De La Soul to LMNO, from clipping. to Detroit's own Elzhi - I just wish it took that additional step to become something incredible, because it really is damn close.

So let's start with the character that owns the stage for every second he's here in glorious excess: Danny Brown himself. I said earlier that throughout his albums he has pushed the split between cartoonish excess and a more downbeat social conscience, just like with XXX and Old the split is here as well... but from the very first track the overall tone has shifted. Whereas on previous records the excess has been rendered so hyperbolic to intensify the polarized contrast, here the drug abuse takes center stage and the focus is on the 'abuse'. Forget any potential glorification of this lifestyle that might have crept onto Old, with Atrocity Exhibition Danny Brown is embodying the addict who is careening so far out of control that the sense of dread begins in earnest. And the fact that Danny Brown is such a nakedly expressive figure only intensifies that feeling - he might establish on 'Tell Me What I Don't Know' in his lower tones the roots of his neuroses, but his wild squawk of a voice across this record shows just how far he is on the edge, right up to the borderline overdose of 'White Lines'. And yet he has just enough sense to twist things back into perspective for the much darker final third of the album, where he highlights the poverty, violence, and loneliness in empty debauchery that explains why he's constantly craving that escape, cheating death one too many times even before at the end he refocuses and vows to give hell to those who saw his rock star-esque downward spiral and thus discounted him - because all throughout this record he does not spitting across dozens of flows, proving able to mimic rappers from ScHoolboy Q to Andre 3000 to Lupe Fiasco. I will reiterate that I've never been a fan of how he forces rhymes, but outside of places where the bars can feel a tad basic - even though it's kind of the point both on the crazed OD of 'White Lines' or the driving 'Dance In the Water' - he's a potent as hell rapper.

And it helps that so much of this album is laser-focused on his claustrophobic walls of mirrors, with very few guest stars to interrupt. The one big exception is the posse track 'Really Doe' with Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar, and Earl Sweatshirt, which doesn't quite fit in with the arc of the album but is such a damn solid cut that you almost don't care, with Earl probably walking away with the best punchlines even though Danny Brown has his own utterly hilarious lines. The other guest stars handle a few hooks and really do a strikingly solid job, between Kelela's singing on the muted 'From The Ground' to the twisted rock star soul of 'Rolling Stone' from Petite Noir to the borderline chipper haze of B-Real on 'Get Hi'.

But enough beating around it: what will inevitably attract the most attention is the production, which is easily some of the most eclectic and experimental you'll see in hip-hop today while still maintaining coherent melodic hooks. And what gets fascinating is how little Danny Brown pulls from modern trap-influenced hip-hp trends, instead touching into sounds that mirror his mix of depression and coked-up insanity. So take a song like 'Golddust', with the busy drumline and smolder of guitars that builds at the end of the hook - it has this thin blast of horn and yet it's also a song that samples Joy Division! And that garish contrast creates such a delirious funhouse affect that it's honestly a little disorienting, and can be tricky to focus on specific elements that work, especially considering how much of it operates as full force with horns and clanking, textured percussion. 'Rolling Stone' has its whistle counterbalanced in the stalking bass guitar, the dirtier beat courtesy of Black Milk on 'Really Do' is matched by a xylophone melody that tinkles through, 'Ain't It Funny' is overloaded with horns and compression that still manages to break into a pretty thunderous groove, a trend that would later be echoed on the shredded bass and shrill jingling squawks that characterize 'When It Rain', or the most immediately memorable melody on the album coming through the closer with the sharper piano on 'Hell For It'. And then you get the moments where the freak house vibe gets all the more pronounced, like the ramshackle horn-drenched mess that seems to imply a sort of desperate freedom on 'White Lines', or the blissed-out sandy cymbals of 'Get Hi' with the watery guitars around the hook. Honestly where the record feels the most accessible are the ScHoolboy Q-esque touches with the cacophonous percussion on 'Pneumonia', or the dense, borderline dancehall feel of 'Dance In The Water' with the female backing vocals, a tactic that's just creepy on 'Lost' with the soulful but clipped sample, shrill synths and blasts of trumpet.

Honestly, as a collection of sound that Danny Brown can somehow ride, I'd give Atrocity Exhibition a lot of points for sheer uniqueness... but now we get to the content, and the area where I wish I could embrace more of this record. As I described earlier, so much of this record plays like a coked out abuse of substances, stripping away the glamour and focusing much more on the addiction that underscores it, before then delving into the hollow rationale beneath it, half the hellhole of intercity Detroit and half some of Danny Brown's own natural predisposition to that sort of hedonistic abuse, which even as a form of escape begins to get all the more hollow. And for the wild ride itself, it's a harrowing listen as you're left wondering where and when he's going to hit that wall... but this is where you also realize that Danny Brown has delved into these topics and themes plenty of times before, and outside of presenting a frighteningly real portrait of what that sort of life might really entail, it doesn't quite go beyond that. What's more, as much as I really do like the ending track 'Hell For It', I'm not sure his annoyance at being judged for his drug abuse has a lot of justification - I get not appreciating this kind of rap for its creativity and visceral insight, but for as many drugs are abused on this record, I can definitely see why some would be a little skeptical, especially considering there are more than a few songs on this record that aren't quite framed with the sort of insight that would temper or add more context to the debauchery, or step up to the level of tracks from XXX or Old.

That being said, I'm inclined to support this album, if only because it is absolutely insane with the sort of half-mad genius that works far more often than it doesn't. I don't quite think it's as strong as XXX, but it doesn't have any of the compromising moments of Old, and as such for me it's a light 8/10. I can definitely say this will not be for everyone, but if you're on board with Danny Brown's unique vocal style, you'll probably be ready for the deranged twists the production takes. Otherwise... well, it's certainly a challenging hip-hop release, but a pretty damn great one all the same.

1 comment:

  1. Mark! Please read this!

    In the next Billboard Breakdown, there will be a song called "Capsize" by Frenship & Emily Warren. Please acknowledge that Frenship is not a producer, but a production duo, there's a difference! Also, and this is the big one, please mention that Emily Warren has written for big name artists such as The Chainsmokers, Melanie Martinez, Becky G, Shawn Mendes, Jessie J. and Fifth Harmony. She's a big name in the songwriting industry, kind of like Sia. Again, please read this! :)