Detroit rapper Danny Brown is thinking far beyond the rest of us. “Pray I get old just to hear I been the future/Just to see my influence in this genre of music,” he rapped on the closing track of his 2013 album “Old,” and on the closing track of his new album “Atrocity Exhibition,” he follows up with this: “I just wanna make music/F–k being a celebrity/Cause these songs that I write/Leave behind my legacy.”
Maybe it’s not what you’d expect from an artist who raps in a shrill, potentially off-putting voice and famously compared the sensory experiences of various unprintable acts to Tropical Fruit Skittles and Cool Ranch Doritos on his breakout 2011 album “XXX.” That’s the way Brown prefers it. He refuses to be pinned down, and that’s one of the many reasons he may indeed one day leave a notable legacy.
“Atrocity Exhibition,” which released Sept. 27, is a curveball that given Brown’s history we should have maybe seen coming. The album features a suite of detailed production that can be described politely as abrasive, although Death Grips this is not. Brown yaps his way through nearly all 46 minutes of it with very little guest help, touching on a variety of topics that range from gleefully fun to dangerously uncomfortable.
It’s also one of the best rap albums of the year, a challenging, individualistic work that feels deeply comfortable in its territory left of center. You get the sense that no one but Brown could have made this. While it is an experimental venture for him, it still feels uniquely his own in the same vein as his previous works.
“Atrocity Exhibition” starts with a perfectly calibrated opener, the track “Downward Spiral,” which depicts Brown in a drugged-out depression through painfully real imagery. “Hennessy straight got my chest like a furnace/Drowning frustrations in an ocean of sin,” he yelps, and that’s not even the most cutting line on the track.
There are scattered references to depression throughout the record. “Getting high, I feel low,” he laments on the determined “Rolling Stone.” “Numbing up with drugs/To suppress these feelings,” he admits on “Golddust.” Brown has called the record a snapshot of his life after earning some fame with the release of “XXX” a few years ago, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s still stuck in this dark abyss. His delivery is that convincing.
Brown remains a fantastic performer, imbuing each line with emotion and pushing every wild instrumental to its breaking point. His pure rapping skills are in fine form here, as he keeps his various flows afloat some of the most esoteric instrumentals that have ever landed on a mainstream hip-hop album. There are influences from all over the map as producer Paul White blends the industrial honking of “XXX” with a razor-sharp punk edge. It’s loud and uncompromising, but always compelling.
For all of dim subject matter, and there is certainly a lot, there are also moments of honest to god fun. “Really Doe” is a raucous posse cut that brings on monstrous guest verses from Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt. “Pneumonia” is pure, bar-filled mayhem with some of Brown’s wonkiest verbal gymnastics.
The best track here might be “Ain’t It Funny,” an absolutely bonkers banger that brings some ludicrous horns together with lyrics like “So much coke/Just to sniff need a ski lift.” It’s an audacious song that aims for the sky and lands on the moon.
“Atrocity Exhibition” is going to turn some listeners off, but if you can make it past both Brown’s voice and the coarse beats, you’re in for a treat. Put this alongside “XXX,” which is one of the best albums of the decade so far, and Brown is assembling quite the discography. If he continues to shift lanes successfully, we may actually look back at his legacy and realize that he was ahead the whole time.
Tyler Keating is associate sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org