I love this album. When I first heard its lead single, “When It Rain,” I was a little disappointed. The track sees MC Danny Brown spittin’ bars over a beat that sounds like it’s building up to a drop that never comes. But then I listened to it repeatedly, and now I can’t stop. The beat feels like it skirts right up to the edge of a bottomless pit, and Brown brings the energy to match. More than anything, however, “When It Rain” left me desperately craving to hear the rest of the album.
Without a doubt, “Atrocity Exhibition” effortlessly matches the excellence of its lead single. This album could easily be the best hip-hop release of the year. During a year in which rappers are releasing mediocre albums (Chance) inspired by past albums from legendary MCs who release their own mediocre projects (Kanye), “Atrocity Exhibition” feels like a breath of fresh air. Rather than trying to build on anything that has come before, it instead carves out its own lane.
Brown, born and raised in Detroit, is an MC who had the best verse on ASAP Rocky’s posse-track “1Train.” Brown has also released two solid records before this one, “Old,” and “XXX,” which is technically a mixtape, but since it’s release, it’s gotten a full re-release as an album. “XXX” cemented Brown’s style: the vulgar lyrics, the simplistic beats and the dualism that he would reprise on “Old.”
Both of these albums would see Brown question the lifestyle he lives, the reasons behind his drug abuse and the ramifications that the drugs are eventually going to bring to him. These are all themes that Brown picks back up on “Atrocity Exhibition,” but the way he tackles these themes over these tracks is nothing short of exceptional.
If you listen to one song off of this album to see if it’s for you, listen to “When it Rain.” This song is the perfect microcosm of everything I love about this album. You have the unique beats supporting Brown’s frantically-fast rapping.
Brown raps about everything from dealing dope, to 2pac’s poem “The Rose That Grew From Concrete,” to Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” to “Coffee Percolators,” and they are all tied together seamlessly. But the best part about this song is that it sets the bar for this album, and the rest of the tracks meet and excel this bar by leaps and bounds.
The tracks on this album are killer. Each track is like its own section of this “Atrocity Exhibition.” From the hectic noise of “Pneumonia,” featuring adlibs from Schoolboy Q , to the guitar-and-bass-driven “From The Ground,” featuring Kelela, who performed for Vassar’s spring concert last fall, “Atrocity Exhibition” covers a wide range of styles and sounds and excels at all of them.
The beats on this album aren’t stellar because they use production techniques really well. The beats are stellar because they’re like nothing you’ve heard before in hip-hop and because Brown works wonders over them.
I have never heard a rapper spit over a cloud of smoke, but that’s what I got with the track “Downward Spiral” with its sparse percussion and stretched-out guitar strumming. I actually can’t tell what this sound is, but it sounds like the twang you get when you strum a guitar string and then start messing with the tuning-knobs. Or on the track “Ain’t it Funny” that has Brown rapping over what sounds like a game-show opening from hell with this glaring buzzer-sound and a harrowing loop of a saxophone in the background.
Therefore, it goes without saying then that the production is the first thing people are going to be talking about, but don’t sleep on the lyrics—Brown brings bars. Just like the song lengths, they are short, but they are just packed to the brim with clever rhymes and dope lyricism.
The lyrics are also something you’re going to want to look up to get the full experience from the album. Danny Brown tackles some heavy subjects like anxiety, drug use and his ever-present fear of death.
But the genius with the songwriting here is that Brown wraps these subjects behind lyrics that would otherwise be pretty typical for the hip-hop genre.
It’s pretty easy to write off some of the songs on “Atrocity Exhibition” as just Brown bragging about how rampant his drug use is or how crazy his sex life is, but if you really dig into the lyrics on tracks like “Rolling Stone,” “Tell Me What I Don’t Know” and “White Lines,” you’ll realize that Brown is just putting up an exterior to hide his inner demons. Brown says as much on the closer “Hell For It” where he states his immaturity is just a way for him to deflect people from questioning his self-esteem.
I can’t relate with Brown’s lifestyle. I was born in Idaho where there were barely more Mormons than there were tumbleweeds. But I’m a human being, and hearing Brown hide his fears behind his bragging about his eccentric lifestyle paints him as just that: a human, flaws and all.
In some sense, the chaotic noisiness of the album serves parallels Brown’s lifestyle and habits. Brown lives in a life where he abuses drugs to escape his problems, but his means of escape just push him further down into the pit of his fears.
The title of the album describes this perfectly. Brown is putting himself on display with this album. He’s displaying his life for all to see, and for all the romanticizing over his vulgar acts, Brown doesn’t leave out the demons he’s running from. This is his so called “Atrocity Exhibition.”