Monday 7 November 2016

Review of 'Atrocity Exhibition' by Danny Brown

The first time I drank beer I didn’t like it. Similarly, the first time I heard Danny Brown’s pterodactyl-like squawking I almost did a Van Gogh and hacked my own ear off.

Attitudes change. I now love beer. I DRINK IT EVERY MORNING FOR BREAKFAST. As for Danny Brown, I’ve since come to appreciate his kooky cadence, even looking forward to it whenever I see his name featured as a guest credit on someone else’s album (which impressively seems to be every hip hop album of the last three years).

Of course, his party rap persona was still an obstacle for me. Call me a lyric snob, but songs about twerking and popping pills do nothing for me. Besides, the Detroit rapper felt like he had so much to give on his last joint Old, showing a quirky sense of humour with a track like ‘Gremlins’, and a grittier and darker side with anti-narcotic narrative ‘Wonderbread’ (later totally contradicted by wild drug binge anthem ‘Dip’). Clearly, if I was ever to become a Danny Brown fanboy, the party rap persona would have to go.

Well, it looks like I better purchase myself some floor-length posters of the crazy-haired gap-toothed emcee, as it seems that is exactly what has happened on Atrocity Exhibition.

Danny Brown’s latest magnum opus is certainly not a party album. It’s very much an anti-party album. No, he hasn't found Jesus. Neither has he become a Poet Laureate overnight. Instead, he’s turned his party rap persona into something frightening and discouragingly ugly. ‘White Lines’ is a decadent and dizzying assault of sex and drug abuse that ends with his nose bleeding and heart racing, the closing line being ‘I hope it ain’t about my time to go’. ‘Get Hi’ meanwhile appears to be a weed anthem on the surface, until you realise it’s all being rapped by the devil on his shoulder: ‘ya girl just left you, you just got fired/ ya car acting up, you need new tyres/ ya bills all late, any day ya phone off/ fuck it cop an 8th, let the load off’.

It’s a dark album, but not a gravely solemn one, often revelling in black humour. Helping to reinforce the mood are some equally outlandish and gloomy beats. ‘Downward Spiral’ kicks the record off twanging cowboy guitars reminiscent of the Breaking Bad intro theme and a druggy freeform feel that encapsulates the OD-brinking lyricism. Following are a freak show of instrumentals that are either downright menacing (the Exorcist-like twinkling of posse-cut ‘Really Doe’) or downright bizarre (the gaudy detuned horn attack of ‘Ain’t it Funny’). I could write paragraphs detailing each instrumental’s individual quirks – each one is as standout as the next.

Most of the beats don’t even seem practical for rapping over, which is where Danny further pushes his creativity – he makes them practical. On White Lines, an abstract dirge that I swear samples the Playstation 1 startup sound, Danny ingeniously uses the noodling bleeping over the top to syncopate his flow. Meanwhile on ‘When it Rain’, he speeds up his bars to match the techno-infused madness in the background. He's also able to add further dynamics by ditching his squawking altogether on ‘Tell Me What I Don’t Know’ and ‘From the Ground’, adopting a calm laid back delivery that I at first assumed was a guest.

Taking influence from a J.G. Ballard novel and a Joy Division song, the title itself seems to even be a clear sign of Danny moving up culturally from low-brow to middle-brow. Some fans may not be impressed, seeing more entertainment in his party god act. But for me, this new dark and insecure character is more relatable. None of us can relate to the party god and yet we all want to be one, whereas none of us want to be the self-doubting maniac with dark thoughts and yet all of us can relate to him. Many artists have pointed out this hypocrisy before. However few have painted it so vividly and imaginatively as Danny Brown.