This is an excellent and refreshingly tense album that’s already being hailed as a masterpiece in some quarters from people who really, really want you to know that they know where it’s coming from. A streetwise rapper you can party to who also openly loves post-punk and Forever Changes and names an album after a Joy Division song? You can practically see the indie critics wetting themselves.
Not that they shouldn’t be. Though the sounds here aren’t quite as original as some are claiming — more on that in a bit — there’ve been few rap albums of any era that sound so confident and so anxious at the same time. Compared to the many trappy records these days that try to be weird but end up sounding pretty uniform and boring, Atrocity Exhibition’s brisk insularity — 15 tracks in just 47 minutes, with only one going over the four-minute mark — feels not only genuinely strange, but pretty eclectic too, and eclectic-ness isn’t something we get much of, even in experimental hip-hop.
The Joy Division title isn’t just a pander to the rock hipsters, it’s appropriate to the over-arching paranoia. And yet where the Joy Division song swarms over you like thousands of twitching lab rats and industrial buzz-saws, Danny Brown still wants to party hard and clown around and not give a fuck about the consequences — perhaps against his better judgment. Where some of Brown’s music feels like straight-up nihilism, especially on the bleaker parts of XXX (“it’s in my DNA, ‘cause my pops like to get fucked up the same way”), Atrocity Exhibition isn’t as damn-it-all: it’s filled with dread, but it’s the dread of knowing there are consequences that do have meaning, and the feeling of trying to party like a hedonist with that knowledge always creeping in where it isn’t wanted. It’s like one of the lab rats from the Joy Division song broke out of the cage, is experiencing the bigger and easier world, yet can’t shake the knowledge that this same world is the one that put the finger on it.
The obvious standout is the single “Really Doe”, which has already blown everyone’s minds in the weeks leading up to the album proper. The all-star lineup of Brown, Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and Earl Sweatshirt practically cemented the song before it even dropped, but it’s not just hype: the creepy, unfinished bass interval stepping up between the chilly bells that serve as a riff is Black Milk doing what he does best; it’s like generic trap bells taken to a subdued place that’s almost uncanny, ending up almost trancelike amongst a deep, throbbing feeling of worry. It’s a posse cut, sure, but this is a posse where something very, very wrong is coming over the horizon. (I love that eerie thunk noise that pops in every now and again, like after the word “confrontation” in Kendrick’s verse.) Ab-Soul probably gets the short end of the stick (despite the great line “married to the game to no avail”), but if Ab-Soul has the weakest flow on a song, we’re already talking classic status. The snare mix is fucking great, and Earl’s “I just broke up with my bitch ‘cause we ain’t argue enough” might as well be written on his tombstone. Plus Kendrick’s hook has the catchiest phrasing of the word “whoa” in quite some time.
The raps are at a peak there, but it’s the beats on the album that you consistently sink your ears into, and with the exception of the half-written “Dance in the Water”, there aren’t any weak cuts. (Well, okay, I guess “Golddust” isn’t that great either, especially considering it sounds too similar to “Ain’t It Funny” right before it; the song gets hipster points for using Ian Curtis’s “this is the way, step inside,” but musically it doesn’t save itself until the chugging guitar sections, which actually sound like the build-up to the choruses in Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda”, of all things.) Right from the start, on “Downward Spiral”, you’ll know that Brown’s gonna be taking you into some really cavernous and disturbed sonic territory: clunking noises that sound like bricks falling from the other side of a big warehouse offsetting soft, droopy slides of bass that turn into foghorns and then louder digital bleeps, and yet the drums are brushed and jazzy while Brown’s voice is as whiny and squawky as ever. The effect of all those contrasts ends up creepy because though the mood is uniformly anxious, it seems like it’s just gonna keep flowing over you like molasses. Brown repeats that he’s “gotta figure it out,” but you’re left with the impression that he not only won’t, but can’t. By the same token, “Rolling Stone” has this high ghostly synth line that makes up for the fairly generic words rhyming “rolling stone” with “so alone” with “in his zone”; rarely has a cowbell sounded so slow, sad, and overcast. The dreamlike “Get Hi” has a breathy, laid-back sample that reminds me of the meditative ship’s-horn noise of Brian Eno’s “Discreet Music”, yet Brown doesn’t trip over the vibe when he name-checks Miles, Ornette, and Coltrane (“stop talking all that jazz!”), and it’s easily the prettiest track on the album. (It’s about weed.) “Lost” has a thick, muffled kick-drum cutting off an old art-ballad vocal sample at what seems like irregular intervals but actually makes perfect rhythmic sense; it never lets the sample get on its feet, which somehow makes the soft mariachi trumpet line all the more unnerving.
Those are some of the more subdued cuts, but the uptempo ones lose none of the eclectic effects. Sometimes the beats are actually so insular and intense that they’re funny: the spluttering keyboard in “White Lines” tries to echo the contour of every vocal line like a kid trying to get under its parent’s skin by copying everything they do (except, of course, not quite lining up all the way), and “Ain’t It Funny” runs on an exaggeratedly thumping beat with an equally exaggerated horn sample that sounds like a big corny reveal in a ‘60s spy movie. I’m not a fan of Brown’s stuttered flow in the Evian Christ-produced “Pneumonia” — it sounds like one of those annoying novelty raps that gets famous off Vine — but the way the clattering, steely percussion just blasts in when Brown abruptly speeds up is like watching some industrial machine malfunctioning but still managing to punch holes in sheet metal anyway. “Today” quotes OutKast’s “B.O.B.” and wants you to notice, right down to Brown’s André-ish flow. And “When It Rain” is just nuts in the best of ways, with a flickering sample that sounds like a cheap digital kid’s keyboard from the ‘90s running through Brown’s unhinged bursts, and the song ends up — again — pretty scary, because the keyboard line would just sound like a random unfinished blurt on its own, but in these hands ends up emphasizing its own unfinished-ness. Plus, there’s a flexatone on deck! (That’s the rattlesnake sound.) Have I made it clear enough that these beats are really fucking interesting? Paul White is a God-tier beat-maker.
And yet, and yet, and yet. It’s a good thing the beats are so good, because Brown himself is really leaning on the clowning, squawky voice here. He’s always had that voice, of course, and in theory it’s the perfect sound for such twitchy, paranoid music. But I think he may have taken it a little too far, to such an extent that, in trying to capture a specific state of mind, his raps ends up sounding boringly unvaried. Where on the more accessible Old and the just-plain-fantastic XXX he balanced out the whininess with some lower ballast here and there, on Atrocity Exhibition the few times he breaks out his lower voice (“Tell Me What I Don’t Know”, with its busy gourd-like percussion and gym whistle bed, and “From the Ground” with its sexy computerish-counterpoint from Kelela), it just sounds distractingly flat, even demo-level; it’s like he’s just reading the words, not letting them flow.
Furthermore, although I know Brown’s going for a twisted psyche, his casual misogyny has always been a problem and he’s not showing any signs of growing out of it. He’s never been very interested in women to start with, even as hook machines, going back to The Hybrid, wherein the beats recalled a zonked-out version of RZA’s production on Ironman (interesting idea) but Brown himself ended up pretty boring because of the noxious content. (Not a single one of Brown’s 25 favorite albums that he listed for Complex is credited to a woman.) Throughout his albums we get plenty of stuff about snorting coke off titties, and gems on the new record like him putting his “tag” on hoes he makes come (lots of stuff about women as conquests), and even on “Really Doe” there’s this: “I be on the chemicals, she be on my testicles/Poke her with my tentacle then put her on my schedules.” People, that’s just gross, plain and simple, and not even in a viscerally shocking way like, say, Eminem or Ghostface, where you’re led down the rabbit hole of their psyches because their imagery is so detailed and/or visceral. Here it’s just boring, and it’s gonna stay boring no matter how many hip dark beats he lays under it.
And on a less-important note, Brown’s focus on cocaine — the asshole’s drug — is worrying to me, perhaps even more than his taste for Korn and System of a Down. I swear, the shift away from amphetamines and psychedelics and toward cocaine and cough syrup has to be indicative of a greater cultural malaise.
All that aside, this is a fascinating soundscape, and actually reminds me of a similarly insular album from 20 years ago that almost nobody remembers: Sensational’s Loaded With Power. There aren’t as many moving parts on Sensational’s album as there are on Atrocity Exhibition, but the two albums share a locked-inside-your-head sort of squirm that even the darkest and wooziest forms of contemporary trap don’t approach. Perhaps even more clear, though — and I’m surprised more people don’t mention this — is the influence of Tricky circa Pre-Millennium Tension or Angels With Dirty Faces, in terms of the dense, feverish “dark-hued neon” vibes of the beats. Danny Brown might end up what we needed: a trip-hopper with a rapid pulse. The closing track of the new album, “Hell for It”, practically begs for that designation, running on a piano sample that sounds like an old Moby track that threatens to break into a late-night Michael Mann chase at any given second, even when Brown falls off the beat.
But yeah, dig your ears in to the musical beds and try to let the nervous squawk of the voice itself wash over you — maybe not the content — and you’ll be rewarded with one of the more sonically inventive rap records of the last few years. Brown himself, and others, should remember that admitting to being an asshole doesn’t erase the fact that you’re an asshole. And be thankful that being an asshole doesn’t diminish the power of your sounds. Not necessarily, anyway. A MINUS