The first time I heard a Danny Brown verse (Toxic from Childish Gambino’s Royalty, if you care at all) I immediately pulled my headphones out of my ears in disgust. How could anybody like this high-pitched whining parody of a voice? Two months later, he was my favourite rapper.
Danny Brown is one of those musicians who sneak up on you. The first listen’s a punch in the face, the second’s a slap, the third’s a caress. It happens on XXX, his most highly regarded album – the album opens with a bunch of unashamed party tracks liberally sprinkled with lines like, “Caught your baby momma horny, then I stuck a carrot in her / Then you made a salad with her, ate it for dinner” or, “My dick so big left stretch marks on her jaw”. But in amongst the vivid misogyny are hints of the insecurity that underlies Brown’s drug-dependent lifestyle: “It’s the downward spiral, got me suicidal / But too scared to do it so these pills’ll be the rifle” and: “I never leave the house ain’t slept in three days / Popping pills, writing, drinking and smoking haze”.
These cracks widen and widen until the second side, on DNA, when it all falls apart. You wake up across the kitchen from him, where he’s lying in the centre of a loose halo of bottles and trash. He gets up, blinking at the light, and slumps down in the corner and breaks into tears. The second side of the album is a shuddering, weeping mess of the emotional trainwreck Brown’s persona built up for himself on the first side, culminating with the deeply affecting 30, in which Brown both fully recognises that continuing to remain dependant on drugs and alcohol will kill him, and that he won’t ever be able to break his patchwork of addictions. The album ends with 30 seconds of instrumental – the aural equivalent, perhaps, of physically pulling away from the grimy too-close reality of the album.
It’s an artful trick, structurally speaking – the party and the hangover, and it’s one which he reversed on his later, lesser album Old. Of course, the question is once you’ve had the party then the hangover and the hangover before the party, where do you go from there? The answer is Atrocity Exhibition, a glorious amalgamation of ‘sad Danny’ and ‘party Danny’ into a single mess of internal contradictions. The unashamed party tracks like Dip have been replaced with tracks like Ain’t It Funny, a freewheeling acid trip gone wrong. This track captures the lunatic-circus vibe that The Avalanches attempted to create on Frankie Sinatra. It comes complete with tortured horns straight from hell. Danny’s lightning lyrics bounce off what sounds suspiciously like fire alarms in the background as his ever-higher voice sounds overjoyed at how he’s trapped in “a living nightmare”. It’s a haunting centrepiece.
I know the title is Atrocity Exhibition, but if I were to compare it to a JG Ballard novel I’d choose High-Rise instead. Both see raw humanity at its worst heaving up in a rebellion against claustrophobia, with Ballard picking his characters’ bodies apart in his 70s apartment block and Brown pushing up against the limits of his addictions in the vaguely mystic Detroit underworld and in the clubs he’s been performing in the last decade. It’s a world of animal urges that Brown’s narrating, and he seems to be disquieted by his own comfort in it. There’s guilt and insecurity here, lurking in the darkness, but Brown has other priorities. It’s fantastically well done; he theatrically papers over the cracks with loud coloured construction card, so you can’t help but notice the insecurity that runs throughout.
Be warned: Atrocity Exhibition is a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape of urban decay and depression, and you’ll love it. I’ve always been wary of giving albums high scores, as I’ve lived to regret a couple. I don’t want to give in to fanboy bias, I really don’t. It got to the point where I made myself a personal rule: I wouldn’t give out ratings above four stars in my articles. Not even if I secretly thought they deserved higher than that. So this might be a little surprising. But then again, in a year when David Bowie, Radiohead, Kanye, Frank Ocean, The Avalanches, Swans, Bon Iver and Kendrick Lamar all released work, it was equally unexpected that Danny Brown would be in the top three. And yet, here we are.