4 ½ stars
Nearly every time I play a Danny Brown track for a friend, I am met with a look of initial confusion and then utter bewilderment as the song progresses. I never blame them, as there isn’t really any direct comparison to make with Brown’s vocals. Describing it as the voice of Andre 300 combined with Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s atonal delivery feels reductive to all three parties, as there’s never really been a voice like Brown’s in hip-hop.
Brown has essentially two modes of delivery: his playful, abrasive bark, and his quiet introspection. He rarely dips into the latter mode, making those songs feel particularly impactful, a jarring comedown. In that mode, Brown is at his most sonically flexible, sounding natural with any style of production. In some ways, “Atrocity Exhibition,” his latest LP, feels like the true follow-up to 2011’s “XXX,” a cohesive collection that touches some of the most extreme emotional peaks and valleys a human being can experience.
Where 2014’s “Old” failed was in pairing his voice with beats that didn’t always compliment his delivery. Using his newfound popularity to pull in high-profile producers like A-Trak, Purity Ring, and BadBadNotGood made for some great songs, but robbed the album of the sound that made “XXX” and “The Hybrid” sound so original. As Brown himself admitted, sometimes he is best suited to beats that sound pretty terrible divorced from his voice. Where “Old” sometimes failed to walk the line between polish and chaos, “Atrocity Exhibition” maintains that balance almost perfectly.
At its best, however, “Old” featured Danny Brown at his most exhilarating pace, taking the listener by the seat of their pants through breakneck speeds and beats that stopped for no man. 2016’s “Atrocity Exhibition” combines the cohesion of “XXX” with the richly-layered, yet deceptively simple production of Paul White, who was responsible for some of the standout tracks on “Old” like “Side A,” “ODB,” and “The Return,” featuring Freddie Gibbs. By sticking with one producer who seems to have perfectly scouted his delivery, Danny Brown has delivered his best work yet.
“Atrocity Exhibition” follows the same pattern as his past records, opening with the side of Brown that feels unloved and unaccomplished, with haunting moments of clarity regarding his dependency on drug cocktails that would make the most ardent partier blush. The opening track, “Downward Spiral,” sets an obvious tone for the beginning of the album, followed by a string of bonafide hits like “White Lines,” “Golddust” and “Pneumonia,” that each could have served as the lead single of their own respective albums. The centerpiece of the album is undeniably “Ain’t it Funny,” a sonic acid trip through Las Vegas accompanied by a chaotic brass orchestra. These tracks and others remind the listener of how they got to know Brown in the first place, as a hilarious partying pervert who sounds too entertained by his own rapping to really care if you’re following.
There’s not much in the way of guest verses on “Atrocity Exhibition” outside of “Really Doe,” which includes a surprisingly solid Ab-Soul feature and Kendrick Lamar’s typical excellence, but also a disappointing showing from Earl Sweatshirt, whose slower enunciation clashes with the song’s bouncy rhythm. “Pneumonia” is the album’s most original song, featuring the crashing industrial production of Evian Christ, and a hook from Brown that’s equal parts menacing and catchy as hell. “Dance in the Water” is an awkward fit as its repetitive lyrics and celebratory tone makes it feel like the conclusion to the album, yet it’s followed by a handful of tracks that truly wrap up the project.
While “Atrocity Exhibiton’s” adherence to the thematic structure of Brown’s past works (internal crisis songs that lead into club bangers) might sound like a notch against it, the pattern is never boring and does a great job of showing Brown’s growth as a person and evolution as an artist. Brown unwinds with the wondrously relaxing sounds of soft-substance abuse on “Get Hi” and follows up with “Hell for It,” in which Brown takes stock of his life, his career and his impact on the people around him, replenishing his motivation to make his mark on the genre and reinvigorating the listener in the process.
The brevity of “Atrocity Exhibition” is one of its strongest points, as it gives you more than you ever thought Brown was capable of, yet teases a few new tricks up his sleeve. As he states in his music and interviews, Brown’s main artistic concern is leaving a lasting impact on his genre. Even if “Atrocity Exhibition” ends up being the pinnacle of his discography, well then, mission accomplished.
PHOTO COURTESY OF WARP RECORDS