Danny Brown’s fourth solo full-length, Atrocity Exhibition, finds the Detroit rapper in a narcotic haze of introspection. Influenced by Joy Division and J.G. Ballard and sounding more psychedelic than ever, Brown is forging a new path away from the near-EDM stomp of Old and XXX. Chris Kelly takes a closer look at the year’s most terrifying coke binge.
When Danny Brown announced the title of his third album, Atrocity Exhibition, commentators were quick to connect the dots to two other works with the same name: the opening track of Joy Division’s 1980 album Closer and J.G. Ballard’s surreal 1970 story collection. While Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition has a touch of the Burroughs-esque stream-of-consciousness and non-linearity which Ballard experimented with in his book, the Joy Division song is more instructive.
Brown finds an analogue with Ian Curtis, who sang obliquely of his mental turmoil on ‘Atrocity Exhibition’: “Asylums with doors open wide / Where people had paid to see inside / For entertainment they watch his body twist / Behind his eyes he says, ‘I still exist.’” The song finds Curtis both encouraging and castigating audiences who saw him as a sideshow, echoed decades later in Brown’s experience of being framed as rap’s hedonist-in-chief: some of Joy Division’s audience were gawking at Curtis’ epileptic fits in the same way that Brown’s fans have fetishized his drug use and abuse.
Drugs have been a prominent part of Brown’s public persona since he broke out at the beginning of the decade as the skinny-jean-wearing weirdo rapper who sold – and possibly smoked – crack. And while he lashed out in 2014 (tweeting, “Nobody cares if I live or die .. That’s the bottom line .. Y’all want me to overdose just don’t be surprised when u get what u asked for”), Atrocity Exhibition is his most direct attack on those who would find joy in his pain.
Where XXX and Old seemed to revel in Dionysian excess, with Brown smoking blunts, dipping molly and chugging booze to escape the demons of his past, Atrocity Exhibition takes a starker look at drug use. And while those substances still play a part, the album has a more singular muse in cocaine – specifically, the frenzy of a coke binge that flirts with death. If his previous albums turned drug use into a circus-like rave, Atrocity Exhibition turns it into Faces of Death.
The album opens with a three-day coke binge, and it’s not a pretty picture: Brown sweating and grinding his teeth, battling paranoia and hallucinations while holed up in his room, paying for a threesome in which he can’t get it up and doesn’t use protection: “Your worst nightmare for me is a normal dream.” This nosebleed nightmare is a major theme throughout, especially during the freaked-out suite of songs at the heart of the album, which find Brown daring death with every line of coke. “Will it all last?” he asks on ‘Golddust’; on ‘White Lines’ he adds: “Heart beating, hope it ain’t my time to go.”
The album’s chaotic, coke-fueled narrative is matched by its sonic footprint. Where Old split Brown’s underground hip-hop and experimental, rave-infatuated sides into separate halves of the album, Atrocity Exhibition is paradoxically more cohesive and more divergent. With production from a crew that includes previous collaborator Paul White, The Alchemist and Evian Christ, the album bounds from spacey psychedelia to bluesy boom-bap to disco-funk-klezmer freakouts to blown-out trap and jiggy rap. But the stylistic hodgepodge works: we’re along for the ride on this binge, blacking out and waking up with every stylistic jump cut.
As ever, Brown has the cheat code for infinite flows, either riding with or fighting against his beats. And his voice is at its most versatile: there’s plenty of that pinched squeal he’s made his trademark, but there’s also a more subdued, less stylized voice on songs like the truth-telling ‘Tell Me What I Don’t Know’.
His versatility would seemingly dispense with the need for vocal collaborators, but Atrocity Exhibition makes good use of a few guest spots. South African talent Petite Noir brings a bluesy counterpoint to ‘Rolling Stone’; Kelela is a welcome feminine energy on ‘From The Ground’; B-Real gives the Cypress Hill stamp of approval on smoker’s anthem ‘Get Hi’. On those songs the featured guests are complementary, but on ‘Really Doe’ they grab the spotlight. On the Black Milk-produced posse cut, Brown’s puerile humor is quickly surpassed by Ab-Soul’s bar-escaping lyrics, Kendrick’s effortlessly effective poetry and Earl Sweatshirt’s punchline stunners (“I just broke up with my bitch cause we ain’t argue enough”; “I’m at your house like, ‘Why you got your couch on my Chucks?’”).
But the featured artists are only temporary guests at the Atrocity Exhibition drug den. The album is a showcase for Brown as he fights anxiety, paranoia, loneliness, and a loss of control. The latter is especially a clear nod to Joy Division, but there’s another reference on Atrocity Exhibition that points to an ending that isn’t as tragic as Curtis’. On ‘Downward Spiral’, Brown mentions the main character in Richard Pryor’s semi-autobiographical film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, a character who – like Pryor – eventually got sober and beat the demons that led to his suicide attempt.
Brown has been coy about his drug use, refusing to admit which drugs he has or hasn’t given up and acknowledging that being openly sober might drive away fans that have come for the sideshow. Whether his real life issues with drugs have been resolved, Brown sounds pretty sober on ‘Hell For It’, shrugging off those who thinks he smokes crack and pointing at his songs and his lyrics – not the Danny Brown atrocity exhibition – as his true legacy.
Chris Kelly is on Twitter.