I want to give Danny Brown a hug.
I’ve just listened five times in a row to his new record Atrocity Exhibition, on which he spends nearly half the album talking about dealing with drug addiction (“I’ma wash away my problems/with this bottle of Henny/Anxiety got the best of me/so popping them xannies/might need rehab”). The rest is about sex, in a not-so-sexy way—including cringe-worthy stories about his own erectile dysfunction—and occasionally he’ll throw in a sort-of-optimistic platitude (“I’ma give ’em hell for it/for whatever it’s worth”).
I’m not sure what I expected from the rapper for his fourth album. The signs of a crisis were all there: shortly after the release of his previous record, Old, he went on Twitter and posted about his anxiety and depression getting worse. “Ya’ll think I do drugs cause it’s fun … I would have no other way to escape. Nobody cares if I live or die. That’s the bottom line.”
Earlier this year, on Vice’s “Detroit” episode of Noisey, he talked about how fame has only increased his drug intake. He was cavalier about it—and maybe that thick fur coat made it hard to take him seriously—but why didn’t we see it? “My whole shit has always been about drugs. Now I have so much pressure … it’s just a way for me to cope with your job … art imitates life.”
Brown’s hints about Atrocity Exhibition leading up to its release were confusing at the time, and are even more baffling now that I’ve heard it. He stated that his biggest inspirations for it were artists like Talking Heads, Björk, and Radiohead. For the life of me, I can’t hear these influences at all. It feels like a red herring now, but the resulting album is much better and weirder than what I’d imagine these New Wave and alt-rock influences would have on the rapper. It’s the result of three long years in which he supposedly barely left the house, and toiled through hundreds of beats, picking out the most out-there ones he could find.
But then, his beats have always been left of center, even by alternative rap standards. 2013’s Old incorporated elements of EDM, trap and techno. 2011’s XXX is a lot-fi, electro-trashy affair. On Atrocity Exhibition, his beats are stripped-back, downtempo, airy grooves, the likes of which I’ve never heard in hip-hop before. The couple of up-tempo songs on the album are stressful pulses of electro-punk that almost sound like they could have been squeezed onto Old in the “deep cut” section, or used as B-sides.
He unloads right at the top of the record over what sounds like a late-night desert drive Yo La Tengo song. “I’m sweating like I’m in a rave/been in this room for three days/Think I’m hearing voices/Paranoid and think I’m seeing ghost-es.” The song title is appropriately titled “Downward Spiral,” which may or may not be a Nine Inch Nails reference.
The darkness never really relents. At least on Old, he might talk about being 7 and watching drug fiends trying to light up a rock on the stove in one song, but in the next he’d talk about popping Molly in a way that at least sounded like he was having fun. There’s little hope on Atrocity Exhibition, and I feel bad for him by the end of the record.
Still, as brilliant as Old and XXX are, compared to the masterpiece that is Atrocity Exhibition, they both seem like relics from rap’s old school. This is Danny Brown at his most creative, and rawest. “Every album up until now, I’ve been trying to make this album,” Brown told NME. He went on to explain that he couldn’t have even imagined how to pull off rapping over some of these beats until now.
Like his down-to-the-marrow, uncomfortably honest lyrics, his flow is Brown at his most direct and straightforward, an odd juxtaposition to the strange music he uses as his springboard. Like Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book earlier this year, Atrocity Exhibition is a phenomenal redefining of what rap music is capable of being.
Kanye may have made it safe for rappers to be emotional, but Danny Brown has one-upped him. He’s shown that you can come from the same harsh streets that birthed braggadocio gangsta rap, and instead produce the kind of painfully honest true-life account that is much more Bukowski than Eazy-E.
INFO: 8 p.m., Oct. 12, Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $22-$99. 429-4135.