Stretchers outside the venue. That’s the main thing I remember. For the past five years, I’ve lived in a sleepy Southern college town, and on the rare occasions when we do get a great live show in town, those live shows are usually fairly sedate affairs. But when Danny Brown came to town, all that went out the window. A couple of years ago, Brown played the biggest of our local clubs, selling it out and packing it full of mostly white, mostly affluent college kids who were losing their minds. At the door, I saw security confiscate one kids’s bag of Cool Ranch Doritos; he hopelessly protested that he wanted to throw it onstage during this one specific line. And if he’d managed to smuggle it in, the snack-food projectile would’ve been in keeping with the spirit of the night. These kids came to party, and Danny Brown responded, blasting through a set of high-octane get-fucked-up rap music. And when I stumbled out of the venue, a little drunk myself, I saw flashing lights and EMTs and a couple of stretchers, there for the kids who’d partied a little too hard. But here’s the thing: Brown was touring behind Old, and album about trying and failing to process trauma, about getting fucked up as a failed coping mechanism. He made music with layers, music drenched in self-loathing and regret, and the world accepted it as party music. It sounded like party music. So maybe Brown just had to make something that didn’t sound like party music.
Atrocity Exhibition, the new Danny Brown album, does not sound like party music. Instead, it’s an overwhelming mess of an album, with Brown forcing his rabid-hyena yowl over beats that sound like they’re collapsing in on themselves. Brown’s great subject is his own brokenness. The whole second half of Old was taken up with bad-faith EDM bangers, songs about losing yourself in drugs and hedonism and then, more quietly, realizing how you were failing at outrunning the trauma of your childhood. Brown raps about the squalid ruins of his Detroit hometown with the same enthusiasm that he uses to discuss cocaine-addled threesomes, and he keeps the same dark edge in his voice. And he spends all of Atrocity Exhibition zoning out on that same feeling of futility. “Everybody’s saying you got a lot to be proud of,” Brown muses on opening track “The Downward Spiral,” making it implicit that he doesn’t believe them. And then: “I gotta figure it out, I gotta figure it out.” At least as far as we can hear on Atrocity Exhibition, he never does.
Brown named Atrocity Exhibition after a Joy Division song that’s named after a J.G. Ballard novel. And if you’re listening for it, it’s possible to hear traces of Ian Curtis’ antisocial animosity and feverish wriggle in what Brown is doing. But he’s also talked about what the title means, about the idea of putting misery out on display so that people can gawk at it. In response, he’s made a profoundly uncomfortable album, one that pushes against expectations in every conceivable way while still absolutely working as a rap album. Brown is still a great rapper — enough of a cornball to make a “head sent me to the moon”/”Mac Tonight” pun (one that only people in their 30s will get) and confident enough to rhyme “I’m Coltrane on Soul Plane” with “bitches know my name from Cancun to Spokane.”
But I also hear him freaked-out and damaged, whether he’s rapping in his inside voice or doing the full bugged-out yelp. “Mama found some racks in some dirty jeans / Told her keep the money, take ‘em to the cleaners” — that could be a brag, but it could also just be some real talk about Brown’s profound disinterest in all the money he’s making. When he talks about sex, it verges on Cronenbergian body horror: “I be on the chemicals, she be on my testicles / Poke her with my tentacle then put her on the schedule.” And plenty of the drug-consumption lyrics could also be read as calls for help: “Lost my brain, going insane / Self-medicate is how I cope,” “Might need rehab, but to me, that shit pussy.” Just as he was on Old, this is Danny Brown rapping from some dank hole of depression.
And I haven’t even gotten into what really sets Atrocity Exhibition apart: The music. This does not sound like a rap album, at least in any conventional sense. The most recognizably 2016 rap track is probably the rap-assassin posse cut “Really Doe,” on which Brown, Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, and Ab-Soul all team up over a tense, tingling beat from Detroit Dilla acolyte and old Brown collaborator Black Milk. That’s a hard, jittery rap beat, but it’s an oasis of calm compared to just about everything else on the album. Alchemist’s work on “White Lines” is built from a jarring, discordant ice-cream truck keyboard melody and a profoundly drunk breakbeat stagger, while Evian Christ’s track for “Pneumonia” is a damaged smear of trap music, and Petite Noir turns in woozy, falling-apart new wave on “Rolling Stone.”
Most of the album — nine of the 15 tracks — comes from the UK producer Paul White, the Martin Hannett to Brown’s Ian Curtis. White’s tracks on Atrocity Exhibition are a jangled swirl of samples, noises dropping in at arrhythmic intervals, never settling into anything resembling a groove. It’s a profoundly uneasy listen, all these echoing acoustic bass-wobbles and chopped-up Afrobeat ripples and John Carpenter drones refusing to ever resolve or settle. Other than “Really Doe” and the B-Real hook on the atypically sunny weed anthem “Get Hi,” the album is entirely free of guest-rappers, and that’s a good thing. It’s a personal album, but it’s also a challenging one, and very few rappers could navigate beats this chaotic with anything like Brown’s gnarled virtuosity. Brown alone knows how to handle these tracks, which belong to the Bomb Squad/Madlib school of rap-music rupture. The songs tend to be short, often whirling to a stop around the 2:30 mark, and that’s good, too. They’re just too fucked up to keep going much longer.
You have to be in the right mood to listen to Atrocity Exhibition. The production sounds so foreign, so alien, that it takes time to wrap your brain about it. And the songs are written from a place of such darkness and numbness that they don’t lend themselves to hedonism, the way Brown’s older records did. (I’m curious how Brown is going to make these songs work in the context of his bacchanalian live shows, but he’s a hell of a performer, and I know he’ll pull it off.) But if you’re ready to meet Brown where he’s living, you will find a profoundly adventurous and expressive rap record, an album that shoots for the stars and, more often than not, hits them. We are living through an era where many, many rappers are capable of great things. But there’s only one person alive who could’ve made this album, and that’s Danny Brown.
Atrocity Exhibition is out 9/30 on Warp.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Bon Iver’s experimental, processed-all-to-hell, absolutely beautiful 22, A Million.
• Jenny Hval’s expressive, experimental, heavy Blood Bitch.
• S U R V I V E’s evocative synth-waver RR7349.
• Nicolas Jaar’s ambient-thump return Sirens.
• Itasca’s lovely, floating folker Open To Chance.
• Drive-By Truckers’ politically driven Southern rocker American Band.
• Opeth’s pastoral prog-metaller Sorceress.
• Pixies’ scrappy, punchy Head Carrier.
• Oathbreaker’s expressively heavy art-metaller Rheia.
• Emma Ruth Rundle’s heavily pretty Marked For Death.
• Alcest’s fluttering shoegaze-metaller Kodama.
• Microwave’s pounding post-hardcore attack Much Love.
• EZTV’s woozily catchy indie rocker High In Place.
• Ultimate Painting’s woozy, psychedelic Dusk.
• Regina Spektor’s dramatic, showy Remember Us To Life.
• Warehouse’s lo-fi DIY masterclass super low.
• The Growlers’ Strokes-affiliated garage-popper City Club.
• Modern Baseball side project Slaughter Beach, Dog’s catchy, impactful Welcome.
• Machinedrum’s twitchy electronic LP Human Energy.
• BANKS’ smokey alt-soul effort Altar.
• Sam Evian’s Serge Gainsbourg-damaged Premium.
• Peaer’s depressive self-titled sophomore effort.
• Hello Shark’s plaintively specific Delicate.
• Brain Tentacles’ spazzy self-titled jazz-metal debut.
• Mr. Oizo’s dance slammer All Wet.
• Craig David’s reliably slick Following My Intuition.
• Infinity Crush’s bedroom-popper Warmth Equation.
• Bob Weir’s National-aided solo album Blue Mountain.
• Van Morrison’s I’m-still-here statement Keep Me Singing.
• The Faint’s career-spanning collection Capsule: 1999-2016.
• Moses Sumney’s Lamentations EP.
• La Sera’s Queens EP.
• Pional’s When Love Hurts EP.
• Letters To Cleo’s reunion EP.
• Fake Palms’ Heavy Paranoia EP.
• Grapell’s Love Chamber EP.