Confessions of a gap-toothed madman
by Jericho Cerrona
Taking a page from author J.G. Ballard--literally--Atrocity Exhibition is the title of his collection of interweaving short stories; really isn't something one would expect from Detroit rapper Danny Brown. Tales of self-medication, violence, egomania, and partying, sure, but such themes were previously contextualized by the man's deranged sense of humor. The strangeness of Brown's voice, unorthodox rapping style, and left-field production choices have always veiled the deeply contradictory nature of his lyrics; as if the dark edges of his persona shouldn't be taken as seriously as other artists. His previous albums XXX and Old, also told stories of depression and hopelessness, but they were perceived almost as throwaway jokes from the near-passed out drunk in the corner at the party spouting gibberish. Brown's need to reconcile his self-destructive lifestyle with his art cannot be ignored on Atrocity Exhibition, however. As a snapshot of suffering and anxiety, it's an absolute gut-punch. As a synthesis of off-kilter instrumentation and razor-sharp lyricism, it's one of the most forward-thinking hip-hop albums to come along in years.
The theme of drug addiction and its consequences are the narrative thread which weaves Brown's intertwining stories. Like Ballard, Brown keeps the interior life of his protagonist both relatable and unknowable. Opener "Downward Spiral" sets the stage; both in the obviousness of its title as well as the lo-fi jazzy instrumentation which skitters behind Brown's ragged voice. In a clever inversion of the constant neo-lit party, Brown claims he's "sweating like I'm at a rave", a reference to a paranoid mind hiding behind excess. "Tell Me What I Don't Know" takes this notion even further to its natural endpoint; a first-person plural account of mindless violence leading to death and prison told with a melancholy flow and ambient synths. The antsy, bugs crawling under the skin vibe of Brown's panic-stricken methodology here hits a fever pitch on "Ain't it Funny", an electro rave-up with squawking horns and "Golddust", which sounds like a Stooges song filtered through a beat-driven drug trip. Brown upends expectations lyrically too, even if the ground he covers is familiar. I used to ride a Schwinn/Now I'm on a tour bus, going places I ain't never seen he coos on the Kelela-featured "From the Ground", which sounds like an R & B jam recorded under water, and there's even some introspection when he humorously demurs Might need rehab, but to me that shit pussy on "Ain't it Funny." He's clearly a miserable wreck, but unraveling has never sounded this confrontational and immediate.
Atrocity Exhibition is the 35 year-old Brown's coming-of-age record; a grimy, unsettling toilet flush of drugs, sex, and self-immolation which buries inside your skull and rattles the brain like a scrambled egg. It's simultaneously noisy, beautiful, atonal, dancey, and altogether singular; with the snaggle-toothed Brown digging deep into his demons and embracing chaos as a necessary means of survival. As he astutely puts it on "Downward Spiral", You're worst nightmare to me is a normal dream, and all we can do is be grateful to be caught in such a spiraling netherworld.