Back in October, fans of hip hop collectively laughed at a young mother who uploaded a video in which she discussed at length how aghast she was over hearing rapper Vince Staples’ song “Norf Norf” on her local radio station. As ridiculous as this video is – she at one point sobbingly recites the song’s explicit lyrics with her young children present – Vince later came out with a set of statements defending the mother and her right to state her opinion even if the opinion was off base from the original message of the song. This video, after quickly becoming a meme, finally dissipated into the ether of internet lore, but not without creating some discussion on the artistic merits of rap and hip hop and their possible glorification of drug use, misogyny, and violent imagery. While there are many advocates who believe rap and hip hop are glorifying these types of lifestyles, there is something to be said about a growing number of rap artists currently showcasing these lifestyles as snapshots of where they’ve been as if to warn others not to go down the same route they did.
Such is the fact with Detroit rapper Danny Brown who recently came out with his fourth album, Atrocity Exhibition. Every track on this album showcases various personal stories of sex, drugs, and situations far from rock n’ roll, but never once does it glorify these types of lifestyles. Rather, Danny showcases these songs as “cautionary tales.” If someone happens to misconstrue it as anything but, Danny lays out his mission statement with complete sincerity in the closing lines of the last song on the album: “So my task is/inspire your future with my past/I lived through that/So that you don’t have to go through it.”
Brown’s writing is on point here as he tells little pieces of his backstory from song to song, and it’s definitely a hard listen when one digs into the lyrics. On “Tell Me What I Don’t Know,” Brown details his past escapades with friends getting in trouble with the law and dealing with drug deals gone wrong. On “Rolling Stone,” Danny Brown details his drug dependency and how hard it is to break out of the cycles of the highs and lows it brings about even if he is completely aware that this is happening: “I’m on a road that never ends/Don’t know opposite of sin/Some people say I think too much/I don’t think they think enough.” Every song on this record showcases his growing ennui of the lifestyles that he had chosen to immerse himself in, and it’s an engrossing listen through every turn.
Before going further, I would be remiss if I didn’t note that this album is not for everyone. For fans of Danny Brown’s earlier albums, this is not Old. Neither is it XXX. It is Danny Brown by way of Death Grips and clipping. Certain beats contain punk rock-like elements, such as on the guitar-driven “Golddust.” Things turn toward the deliciously abrasive on album highlight “Ain’t It Funny” where a horn section blares to no end as if to signal an incoming tornado. However unconventional and experimental the instrumentals and samples are, it plays into the albums themes perfectly. It’s the musical equivalent of a bad acid trip with the listener riding the highs and lows.
In terms of features, other than Petite Noir, Kelela, and B-Real all singing hooks on their respective songs, “Really Doe” is the only track with guest features rapping over the instrumental, and it’s stacked with Ab-Soul showing some passion for the rap game, Kendrick being Kendrick, and Earl Sweatshirt showcasing some brash, brazen verses that cements his top billing on the song. With a line-up such as this with the performances given on the track, it’s crazy to think that this might not be the best song off the album. There are many highlights on Atrocity Exhibition, and it’s thanks to Danny Brown’s lyricism and fiery delivery. There are instrumentals on this album that Danny has absolutely no business sounding as good as he is when he raps over them – especially on a track like the album’s second single, “Pneumonia,” where Brown spits bars over an idiosyncratic industrial beat with a time signature that should make spitting bars over it humanly impossible. Songs like this one shouldn’t work, but they just do thanks to Brown’s technical ability.
To say Danny Brown reinvented his sound with this album is an understatement. Many of the tracks here – other than “Really Doe” – are a far cry from anything you’d hear on mainstream radio. However, the album is well made, well produced, and very much so a rewarding listen – no matter how weird or how long it is. Although this album is soon going to be measured up to other strong rap albums that came out this year – like Schoolboy Q and Anderson Paak’s new records – Atrocity Exhibition is a different beast entirely. It’s most akin to Kendrick
Lamar’s turn last year with the politically driven, jazz-influenced To Pimp a Butterfly. Both records showcases two highly skilled rappers at the top of their game – artists who switched up their styles and showed why they’re the best at what they do. They accomplished this because they both made strong, entertaining, and experimental album experiences with a message rather than their records being just vehicles for hit singles. They were both risks, and those risks paid off. And while Atrocity Exhibition isn’t on the same level as Kendrick’s masterpiece, it’s still an important piece of music and an enjoyable one at that.
I highly recommend this album to lovers of industrial, experimental, and alternative hip hop, especially for those that dig artists like Death Grips, clipping., Shabazz Palaces, and Run the Jewels. And to rap and hip hop listeners who usually stick with more traditional artists and sounds, this may be a challenging listen, but I implore you to give it a chance. It may just surprise you in ways you could never expect.