‘Atrocity Exhibition’, Danny Brown’s fourth solo album, was arguably the most agonising trip into Danny’s psyche – and quite possibly one of the best LPs of 2016. At the epicentre of this whirlwind of shrewd introspection and schizophrenic babbling was ‘Ain’t It Funny’, the instrumentation of which wouldn’t sound out of place at a circus. Probably not a normal circus, though; think less Cirque Du Soleil, and more Pennywise hoovering up a gram of coke and skipping around like a nutcase.
The visuals are pretty strange too. With the direction duties handed to Jonah Hill, the pair reimagine a (slightly) fictionalised version of Danny’s life in the aesthetic of an 80s sitcom. The video features legendary writer Gus Van Sant as the ‘dad’, Growing Pains’ Joanna Kerns as the ‘mom’, Lauren Alice-Avery as the ‘daughter’, some ‘fucking kid’ as the ‘kid’ (you know, the stereotypical twat that the laughter-track goes extra crazy for), and Danny Brown as the fucked-up ‘Uncle Danny’. Hopefully the irony isn’t lost on you: Danny is just playing himself.
Anyway, the clip itself just sets out to emphasise – in some form of narrative – what the song, and in fact the whole album, is trying to explain about Danny Brown: we, the listeners, findjoyin Danny’s suffering; yes, he frames his tales of narcotics and mental health in a humorous light, but when you peel back the layers – it’s not funny at all. This is made quite clear when the ‘fucking kid’ (who, like the rest of cast, act as additional mouth-pieces for Danny) says,“He’s DYING and you people are LAUGHING. You DISGUST me”.
The thing is, it may seem that, on the face of it, Danny glamorises drugs, but in reality – he does the opposite: he makes them seem fucking scary; I’m pretty sure that if you were to play ‘Ain’t It Funny’ or ‘White Lines’ at the end of a D.A.R.E. convention, kids would run for the hills. So, with that in mind, give the guy a break.
Rap’s favourite psycho, Danny Brown, has released another album. For those that don’t know, Danny Brown rose to fame on the strength of his sophomore LP – XXX, seemingly kick-starting a run of projects that would have a profound impact on hip-hop. Atrocity Exhibition, a title lifted from a Joy Division track, is the third instalment in Danny’s depraved adventure and a firm nod towards the LP’s sonic flavour. However, it should be noted that the title also belongs to an experimental novel by J.G. Ballard, a key theme of which is psychosis. Now, I wouldn’t put it past Danny to read such an obscure novel (there is a chapter called “Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan”), and I can assert without hesitation that psychosis is a theme shared by both works.
Anyway, Danny Brown can arguably (and perhaps impertinently) be summed up in the following manner: a drug-abusing, drug-slinging maniac with a devotion to hip-hop, and an uncanny ability to generate an unparalleled range of noises with his vocal chords; a new listener may simply mistake him for six different iterations/reincarnations of ODB. You don’t have to listen to too many tracks before you discover that he likes it raw.
After flirting with a gaudy, electronic sound that had many listeners wide-eyed and stiff-jawed on Old, Danny and frequent collaborator Paul White extend their musical net much further this time. Electronic production is fused with everything from punk to jazz, framing his tales of narcotics and poor mental health in a new light. Instrumentation from tracks like “Ain’t It Funny” and Alchemist’s “White Lines” wouldn’t sound out of place at a circus. Probably not a normal circus, though: think less Cirque du Soleil, and more Pennywise hoovering up a gram of coke and skipping around like a freak.
One of Danny’s strengths, and perhaps what affords his schizophrenic yapping a degree of clarity and order, is the intricate manner in which he weaves his projects together, elucidating them through reference to each other. On XXX’s opening track, Danny raps: “It’s the downward spiral / Got me suicidal.” On Atrocity Exhibition’s opener, Danny takes this harrowing bar and puts a magnifying glass over it. However, there are no mentions of “Squidward” or “his clarinet;” instead we are left with pure anguish as Danny howls, with a seemingly increased psychotic inflection, over dissonant guitars and plummeting bass. The significance of expanding on this microcosmic bar, then, is that it demonstrates from the get-go that Brown is still firmly on the descent – or perhaps in a crumpled heap at the bottom.
For the most part, we find Danny hovering at the nexus between shrewd intelligence and pure insanity. A feat that might seem illogical, or even impossible, before listening to this LP. Bars like “Some people say I think too much / I don’t think they think enough” on “Rolling Stone,” and the manner in which he flits between Danny Brown and André 3000 while encapsulating and rationalising his whole reckless philosophy on “Today,” demonstrate Brown’s genius. Both of these tracks, however, sandwich the middle third of the album, some of which arguably belongs in a mental asylum. On “Dance In The Water,” Danny babbles frantically over drums and vocals ostensibly sourced from a samba festival, sounding like a nutcase trying to tame a Rottweiler. At times, he sounds as though he is two bars away from an actual breakdown; if XXX was a concept album about desperation, Atrocity Exhibition is surely a concept album about full-blown insanity. That being said, these tracks certainly add something to Brown’s enigmatic catalogue, and at no point over-stay their welcome; just as you think he’s losing the plot, he’ll reel you in with one of his pearls: “So much coke / Take a sniff need a ski lift” (“Ain’t It Funny”).
Moving forward, let’s talk about the singles. On the latter half of the rave-centric Old, the singles “Dip” and “Smokin & Drinkin” playing back-to-back sounded a bit like an extended cut of the crackhead’s “Harlem Shake,” throwing Side B a little off-axis for me. Atrocity Exhibition, however, is bolstered with all the right singles in all the right places. The Black Milk produced “Really Doe” is perfect: Earl, Kendrick and Ab-Soul trade bars triumphantly over eerie bells, proving themselves as the ideal trio to support Danny. On the Evian Christ produced “Pneumonia,” we find Danny doing a rare bit of peacocking over raucous clanging, interspersed occasionally with Schoolboy Q’s signature ad-libs. “When It Rain,” however, steals the day: White and Brown generate a beautiful, brand-new piece of wack-jobbery, while still remaining true to “the old Danny Brown.”
The album draws to a close on a strange note (no surprises there). “Hell For It” begins with stuttered piano runs, Danny quick to condemn anyone who has questioned his art. He reiterates a bold statement from his first album, Hybrid: “Tell myself everyday / The greatest that’s alive.” However, more interestingly, he brings to light a purpose to his music that he has omitted thus far: “I lived through that shit so you don’t have to go through it / Stepping stones in my life hot coals walk with me.” It’s funny – although Danny doesn’t shut up about topics like drug addiction, he never makes them seem glamorous – in fact, he makes them seem fucking scary; I’m pretty sure that if you were to play “White Lines” at the end of a D.A.R.E. convention, kids wouldn’t touch coke with a barge-pole. So, with that in mind, perhaps there is method behind his madness.