By: Emmett Robinson Smith –
Danny Brown is a member of the handful of hip-hop artists teetering on the mainstream, but never quite going over. He’s prevalent (and important) enough to earn recognition from pockets of the masses and strange enough to attract adoration from critics and hip-hop heads. The tone of his voice alone is enough to spark conversation, and he delivers his raps with an off-kilter but deft lyricism that is simultaneously abrasive and beguiling.
His party anthems like “Dip” and “Smokin and Drinkin” from 2013’s Old remain in heavy rotation at parties, while his barren moments of self-reflection remain with the listener long after the music has faded. “Problems from my past haunt my future and my present / Escapin from reality got me missin my blessings,” he rapped on Old’s “Clean Up”. “Downward Spiral,” the opening track from Brown’s new album, Atrocity Exhibition, continues this narrative in a warped parallel sonic universe, its intoxicated haze shrouding any sense of convention or sobriety. Atrocity Exhibition clatters and clangs, its scattershot percussion adorning whistles, slide guitars, tinny brass sections, and more. The album switches on a whim from chemically-induced cacophony to desolate, morning-after miasma. Brown, white-knuckled and red-eyed, rides these beats with a teetering agility, bushwacking through his demented verses with authority and ease.
Atrocity Exhibition finds Brown employing flows that almost nobody else would attempt. On “White Lines,” he matches his cadence to the sporadic melodic line of an exotic plucked instrument, his rhyme pattern fluctuating with every thought: “Now we getting blowed / Let go the wheel of what we called self-control / Popped another roll / I’m tore fo sho / Oh no / I feel a little tingle in my toes”. The great thing about Danny Brown is that the further he strays from convention, the better he sounds. Atrocity Exhibition is an apt title: Brown wields his weirdness like a weapon, and consequently, he’s all the more magnetic.
Because of the sheer singularity of his style, Brown has proven again that he’s one of the best – and most refreshing – voices in rap right now. Despite featuring heavyweights Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt on “Really Doe”, Brown spits the best verse, each end rhyme hitting harder than the last: “Rapping with that special flow / Only way you’re next to blow if you be strapped with C4 / I be fresh from head to toe, every day a fashion show / Used to tote that Calico and serve like John McEnroe.” “Really Doe” stands out the best collaborative rap tracks in recent memory, aided by one of the most menacing beats of the year, courtesy of Detroit’s Black Milk. Shoutout as well to Earl Sweatshirt, who sounds more commanding than he ever has, his deep, gravelly timbre making for an undeniable final verse.
While Brown’s idiosyncrasies may distance him somewhat from the core of current working hip-hop artists, his mission statement is laid out clearly on “Hell For It”, the album’s final cut. “Cause I’m knowin I’m the best / They compare skills to sales / Tell myself every day / Know this shit ain’t real.” This is well-trodden subject matter in rap, but the difference here is that it could not be more applicable. Atrocity Exhibition is one of the most daring and engaging albums released this year. It’s not for everyone, but as more and more rappers hitch a ride on the trap train in order to maintain marketability, Brown’s crusade in the opposite direction is admirable.