On the first song from his breakthrough album, XXX, Danny Brown declared: “I took a while to get here now I depend on these drugs” — a statement that functioned as both summation and confession. On his new album, Atrocity Exhibition, pitched as a narrative successor to XXX, Danny Brown is older, more famous, and most importantly, more narcotized. The survival strategies that propelled him to stardom — a monomaniacal dedication to rapping and drug-dealing, a taste for drugs and alcohol, and an unshakeable desire to transcend — have become dense and knotted, fattened up by the trappings of fame. That relentless forward momentum, which animated tracks like “Scrap or Die” and “Die Like a Rockstar,” is now propelling him ever closer to absolution.
And it’s this death drive that most fascinates Brown here. Over 15 tracks, he excavates its formation and details its malignant influence, accompanied by the tenebrous, psychedelic soundscapes of frequent collaborator Paul White. The subject matter is bleak, but the album elides monotony, as White, alongside other producers like Evian Christ and Black Milk (who produces the absolutely monstrous posse cut, “Really Doe”), construct a rich sonic palette for Brown to inhabit. It’s a compelling blend, the mellifluous sonics furnishing the tracks with an organic warmth and dexterity, while the lyrics dwell obsessively in the frigid realms of the personal, the historical, and the debauched.
As soon as opening track “Downward Spiral” stumbles into view, guitars and drums splayed outwards, we’re plunged into a world of quotidian inebriation, machinic sex, and stupefied feeling (“Thinking it’s rational to have no emotions”). Brown wonders aloud, “Have I learned anything?,” confronting the listener with a being that refuses control in favor of a self-perpetuating descent into nihilism. This atrocity exhibition rejects the listener’s sympathy, however, and instead demands its engagement. We’re enjoined to bear witness to the psychic trauma of a lifetime of poverty, violence, and addiction — an existence in a system from which no one escapes “alive.” On “Tell Me What I Don’t Know,” Brown describes a form of life in which childhood is exchanged for a makeshift adulthood, one limned by violence, drugs, and punishment. “Rolling Stone,” which features Cape Town-based Petite Noir, foregrounds the deadened affect that clings to such a life, one that Brown describes as “Feeling like I’m not alive /But I know I’m not dead.” Over a bass-driven, post-punk groove, Brown barrels through existence in the only way he knows how: alone and haunted, his life reduced to a deathless inertia.
It comes as no surprise that on an album consumed by incessant momentum, Brown’s drug of choice on Atrocity Exhibition is cocaine. Its dull fingers leave traces across the tracklist, as Brown cooks it, sells it, and consumes it. It suffuses the atmosphere on “Ain’t It Funny,” transforming the track into a roiling, distended heater, a skronking sax driving Brown’s manic flow. It pulses through “Golddust’s” veins, the song responding in kind by tearing at the conventions of the rap song, prostrating itself before nullity. And it’s at the heart of “White Lines’s” nightmarish boom-bap, coating Brown’s strained, nasal delivery and transforming his slanted bars into bizarro pop nuggets. These songs are psychedelic in the way The Stooges were psychedelic: obsessed with death and (self-)destruction, exploring the outer limits of being, wide-eyed and unhinged.
This mode of exploration-as-self-abnegation is responsible for some of the album’s best moments, as Brown and his collaborators play mercilessly with the conventions of rap beat construction. “Pneumonia” is a gorgeous sonic contraption, an automaton hooked up to bells and drums, thrumming with barely disguised violence. Evian Christ’s production is lithe and detailed, guiding Brown through ferocious club sonics out of the Rabit school of club deconstruction, leavened by shimmering, resonant tones. “Hell For It” is riven with blank space, piano and bass the only things separating Brown from the void — a whisper of a rap song. Brown hinges his flow to these off-piste construction with ease, finding pockets of space to explore, as his eye ultimately comes to rest on a single object: legacy.
On “Hell For It,” Brown pivots away from the perpetuity that threatens to consume him, orienting himself toward the future: “So my task/ Is inspire your future with my past/ I lived through that shit/ So you don’t have to go through it.” It’s a thought first proffered on the opening track (“You never know, one day here the next you’re gone/ So I put it all up in these songs”) and provides the album with a neat conceptual arc, transforming it into a defiant document of his existence. Brown cathects his trauma into his songs, redirecting his pain to a productive, pedagogic end, echoing Walter Benjamin’s famous assertion that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Danny Brown’s gift is that he imbues these barbaric tales with pathos and humor, burning his existence into the rap firmament, always and forever the “murder music orchestrator”.