Asylums with doors open wide,
Where people had paid to see inside,
For entertainment they watch his body twist,
Behind his eyes he says, ‘I still exist.’
– Joy Division, “Atrocity Exhibition”
DANNY BROWN’S new album “Atrocity Exhibition” – name borrowed from a Joy Division song on the album Closer and J.G. Ballards surreal story collection – is perhaps the greatest contribution to his already extensive discography. Though certainly not his most categorically loud project, “Atrocity Exhibition” reveals new lows and new depths in the Danny Brown mythology which has established him as hip-hop’s fetishized hedonist-in-chief and which has unraveled since the critic-rocking release of his first album, “XXX.” This new album is a composite anthem of the darker side of addiction, no longer illuminated by seductive glamour and ostensible masochistic disregard. On “Atrocity Exhibition,” Brown takes a step from the more familiar EDM-adjacent, coke-blind, Hennessy-soaked nights sustained by the continuous smolder of a Honey Backwood blunt, and chronicled at least since 2010 when “The Hybrid” came out. He seems to have awoken in a dingy, dark and licentious wasteland haunted by forgotten faces from nights past, amphetamine sore jaw, heartburn, nosebleeds, scratchy throat and a fear for the limits of his heavily wrought mortality, yet unable to stop – exhibiting atrocity. Here, Brown returns – or returns again – part street preacher, part depraved and depressed vulgarian.
Danny’s new perspective hits hard in “Atrocity Exhibition.” Gone are the kaleidoscopic drug prisms like “Die Like A Rockstar” in which Brown, with a flare of fiendish masochism, seems to revel in his villainous rampages. But the remnants of such Dionysian excess do hang in the air in “Atrocity Exhibition.” In “Downward Spiral”, Danny brags about wearing nothing but a “bathrobe and pinky ring” in very much the same vein as comic classics like “Adderal Admiral.” Or, in “White Lines” Brown descends back to the paranoiac cocaine hallucinations and wacky wordplay which made him famous in older songs like “Shouldn’t Of” and “Outer Space”. The colorful addictions have lost their color in “Atrocity Exhibition” and lapses like “White Lines” feel more melancholy than lavish. Trepidations of his addiction have been a part of his dark, gonzo penmanship – the likes of Robert Crumb and Ralph Steadman – since 2012, when “XXX” was released and Danny was slung into the spotlight. However, when in the past Brown’s drug use and drug references wove an alluring and hedonistic dystopian circus, they now sketch the cadaver faces of his dead friends and fellow masochistic hedons, and begins to trace out the face of his own corpse.
This is the product of Brown’s growing discontent as the absurdist juggalo junky everyone has grown to love; who in 2014 tweeted, “Nobody cares if I live or die .. That’s the bottom line .. Y’all want me to overdose just don’t be surprised when u get what u asked for/” In order to make such a presentation of his same vices but from this more developed, previously subverted perspective, Brown is accompanied by Paul White on ten of the fifteen songs. “Golddust,” for example, brings these darker revelations to the forefront with bars like “lost control / don’t have a soul / myself I don’t know no more” which arise as a feverish cry for help with a touch of Burroughs-esque madness. Brown and White have worked together previously but never to such a degree. White’s famously jagged lo-fi and claustrophobic beats fabricated from `60s and `70s psych-rock cuts contrive a strangely harmonic dissonance. The result is an unhinged sound and a kind of crazed, sinister texture imparted by the confused foreboding of White’s beats. The collaboration fits perfectly with Brown’s damaged psyche.
At points, though, Brown’s introspection deviates and he does a little characteristic butterfly-chasing. He takes a slight turn from the turmoil of his internal devastation on songs such as the Madvillainesque “Lost,” the madhouse “Dance in the Water,” “Today,” and stoner anthem “Get High,” when he takes a break to pursue style rather than his demons. When Brown was sent to prison for eight months for breaking his parole in his mid-20s, he said the worst part wasn’t that he lost all freedom or agency but that he couldn’t listen to music anymore. He’d have his brother send him MF Doom lyrics by mail, which helped him to get by, but without relieving the loss. “Lost” is a clear metrical and sonic homage to this influence with its slick, jazzy syncopation and wild, seemingly discontinuous lyrics. On “Today,” Brown evokes the delirious, grainy, almost spoken-word lyricism of Andre 3000. And, on “Get High”, which is not only laced with stoner slurs and hazy rhythms redolent of Cypress Hill but with a cluster of jazz references, Danny flexes the breadth and profundity of his music scholarship.
In a way, Danny Brown’s music is something like jazz. It is only relatively recently that his sound has made a move to the unconventional, and Brown has become such a drug-addled mad sonic scientist. Though likely addled before, on his earlier works like the “Detroit State of Mind” mixtapes and “Hot Soup” Brown displays a formal hip/hop mastery of infinite flows on infinite beats. The old school lyric-central hip-hop attitude of a street freestyler – as Brown became in order to entertain and placate threatening fiends in his youth – still defines his rapping ability, he just seems to be testing the sonic and aesthetic limits of his technical ability and obvious lyrical dexterity. His more recent albums, which have earned his cult-fame, are cursory flirtations with free jazz drenched in a post-punk sludge, grime, and ghettotech aesthetic. The cacophonic quality with which he experiments, and which is developed further by the collaboration with Paul White is almost reminiscent of the acid and desert crazed Captain Beefheart, but still just dark goofy Danny.
“Atrocity Exhibition” is pure, unadulterated Danny Brown. Brown’s cartoonish lyricism finds a pithy equilibrium in this most recent project as he reconciles his lyricism and musicality with the persona that has engulfed and seems to be drowning him. In “Hell For It,” Brown aptly closes his second verse on the song and final lines of the album with “I just wanna make music / Fuck being a celebrity / Cause these songs that I write / Leave behind my legacy.” Forget about the pandering, veneer bangers of Old: Atrocity Exhibition is as much a resolute exclamation as it a cry for help to just let Danny be Danny, which is a hard enough thing in and of itself.